The next group we study is the Pastoral Planning Committee (PPC). It was formed in 2006 and apparently disbanded in late 2009, having reduced the number of parishes by about 25%. The PPC was an ad-hoc group formed for one purpose — to restructure the parishes of the Diocese. In this objective it resembled the Mullin Report, which was commissioned by Msgr. Bonzagni in Oct. of 2004 and worked on by UMass.  The report was released in March of 2007.

Among the many mysteries of the Mullin Report are how much it cost, why it is called the “Mullin Report”, and why no original research was undertaken. It recycled statistics about baptisms, funerals and cash flow that were well known within the chancery. Compilation of the report was entrusted to social scientists at the University of Massachusetts (albeit young ones — graduate students). The charts looked good. 

This approach was probably cheap — there is no reason to suspect that the cost rose as high as the 5 or 10 thousand dollar standard for similar commissions at the Center for Economic Development at UMass. But whatever the cost, there was a useful side effect in using the services of a university.  It opened the door for Bishop McDonnell to claim in subsequent closing decrees that “professional studies” helped lead to the down-sizing and not just concerns about the salvation of souls.

The most information about the PPC appeared in the special supplement to the March 2, 2007 issue of the Catholic Observer. Potted biographies of the 12 committee members appeared along with broad statements about the PPC’s mission. A flow chart was included. The mission statement includes the topics we’ve discussed recently — collaboration and deliberation.

The mission statement: “The Pastoral Planning committee is responsible to study, seek input, deliberate and to recommend a blueprint to the Diocese of Springfield that will assure continued fair and equitable access to the sacramental and pastoral life of the Roman Catholic family of western Massachusetts”.

The core of the mission appears to be: 1. preserve the sacramental delivery system and 2. preserve pastoral life.

Since the sacraments are administered only by priests, and since priests are in short supply, it sounds like the mission could be restated thus: downsize the number of congregations in order to match the number of those anointed to take care of them.  This is far from church doctrine on the subject, but what else can be concluded? 

In the second part, I find “pastoral” vague.  Who defines what is pastoral? Does it refer to the pastor, or to the ones being pastored? The vagueness implies that "pastoral" may be just another way of saying patriarchal care of the flock, or curing rather than caring.  This signals a retrenchment because it places the emphasis on what is static (the status quo) rather than on a changing and active interpretation of what is or could be “pastoral”. It would not be too much to conclude that the agenda of the PPC can be summed up in the phrase: “it’s all about the priests”.

That the mission was to preserve the priestly structure of the Diocese was confirmed by a Diocesan spokesman in an interview with the “Register” of Sept. 9, 2009, a Polish-American publication in Chicopee.   For more on this aspect, see this post.

The quote: "To keep the priesthood structure viable, we have to make these cuts now".  This was part of the Diocese's explanation to justify the merging or closing of 14 parishes in the fall of 2009.

And, there is other evidence that the officials of the Diocese of Springfield consider priests more important than the laity.  There are many comments sprinkled through past issues of the Catholic Observer that say, in so many words, that the laity  "... are nothing without the Eucharist…". These attitudes and expressions are most unfortunate.  Though meaning no harm, the cumulative effect is bad – they tend to reinforce the idea that the Eucharist is a kind of magic show – with the priests as magicians, and the laity as the audience.  

For example, the March 30, 2007 Catholic Observer carried these comments on page 14: “During his homily, Father Timothy J. Campoli, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Greenfield and a friend of Msgr. Yargeau, said that “ the two most precious and beautiful gifts we could ever receive” are the gifts of the Eucharist and the priesthood.  “For us to be saved, we need the Eucharist, and if you don’t have priests, you don’t have the Eucharist,” he said.

The attitude that there is no salvation without the Eucharist is clearly wrong. Fr. Campoli was speaking during a Mass for vocations and was probably just stretching a point.  But, statements like these can lead to the notion that the administration of the sacraments is more important than the people who receive them.  Or, alternatively, that the people administering the sacraments are more important than the people who receive them. Both of these are wrong. Church doctrine is clear that community is always more important than the priesthood.  It could not be otherwise, because priests come from the community.  They are not airlifted into and imposed on the community,  but on the contrary, are lifted up from and derive their authority from their fellow Catholics.

But leaving aside the "priest-shortage"  justification (which is only one of the reasons given for closures and mergers), let's get back to how it was done.  As we were saying, the PPC was appointed in March of 2006 and met regularly for the next several years. Links to their reports are here.

During the roll-out in the spring of 2007, Chairman Richard Butler said: “We’re very, very concerned that the whole process be transparent — no secrets. Everybody’s got to know how we got there, why we got there. They may not agree with the conclusions, but at least, I think, they will understand why it has to be this way…”.

Member George Nolan chimed in: "We want it to be seen as a dialogue among the people on the committee, the deanery pastoral councils, parish priests especially, and the people who are in the parishes".

It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong. The lofty goals did not match the reality. Butler wanted transparency, yet the PPC maintained a Sphinx-like silence once the committee was launched. There was input from parishioners - however, the form of it (the so-called listening sessions) was so deeply flawed that they provoked anger and resentment more than cooperation. They were pathetically inadequate to the purpose.

We don’t have time for all the details, but to summarize, each of the ten regions of the Diocese met in a crowded school gymnasium or cafeteria or similar venue.  Since each region was composed of many parishes and many people, and since a single day was devoted to the exercise (and in some cases less than a single day) the amount of useful discussion that took place is much in question.  Another problem is that the follow-up was also lacking, see for example the letter of Walter Doerle (St. Therese) and the web site of the parishioners of St. Stan’s. (see the "listening session" enclosures 1-3, on this page.)

The disappearing act of the PPC was most pronounced in the Catholic Observer, which never again covered the PPC in any detail. The committee was just as vacant from parish bulletins and the so-called secular media. Despite the goals and assertions of Butler and Nolan, it is as if the PPC did not exist anymore after the initial announcements. This is something that seems to happen with alarming frequency to ad hoc groups formed by the Bishop.

NEXT POST: The PPC, part 2