IOICC - Love In Action

 “Their prayers have been answered. Parishioners of Immaculate Conception Parish in the Indian Orchard section of this city will be able to “open wide” their church doors for the foreseeable future as Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell announced Sept. 18 that the parish, which had been slated for closure last year, could remain open”.

So said the diocesan news release. 

McDonnell said that “Based on the increased participation in parish life shown over the past year, and in light of the proposals to provide for the future…I have directed that the Parish of the Immaculate Conception in Indian Orchard remain in existence…..the efforts undertaken in the past year have indicated a willingness to support the parish by participation in its sacramental life and its ministries…”

The diocesan press office said that the parish responded to the Bishop’s challenge, and apparently, that made all the difference. According to the press office, McDonnell stressed that “…their future, like that of all Catholic parishes, will be determined by remaining viable and active communities of faith.”

Without question the parishioners of IOICC should be proud of turning their death sentence around and perhaps even grateful to the Bishop for the reprieve. Kudos to them for what they accomplished, which was predicted in this space on October 18, 2009 (see # 5).

But, as usual, the tone of the diocesan news releases raises questions. They read as if Elliot St. has no connection to the events which sparked the reversal. The chancery seems unable to express a thought unless in code.

For example, the official story implies that IOICC was a lackluster parish until it was “challenged” by McDonnell to do better. Then, IOICC got 50 or 60 new families involved, balanced the books, increased their sacramental participation and now............all better.

Is that really what happened?

Why does the Bishop bring up the “sacramental life” of the parish, as if that were secured now, and lacking before? If the sacramental life of the parish has changed in any way, this is the first I’ve heard of it. It would be hard to find more devout and faithful Catholics than those who populate Polish communities. And, what does “sacramental life” mean, anyway?

McDonnell supposedly now views IOICC as one of the “viable and active communities of faith”.  Does that mean that they were not viable and active before the fall of 2009? That's pretty hard to believe, in view of the 400,000 dollars they raised for an elevator in recent years. What was it, exactly, that changed? How did they suddenly become “viable” on the strength of a significant but still small increase of 50 or 60 families?

In more code, McDonnell cites “increased participation in parish life” as another of his motivating factors.  What does that mean? Again, there was no suggestion before the closing that parish activities were less attended than elsewhere. As a matter of fact, my hunch, based on several visits, is that they participated more, not less, than other parishes. Granted, this opinion is only based on a few visits.

On the other hand, how much does this reversal have to do with money?  The Bishop doesn’t say, and the diocesan press release doesn't say, either.

Am I the only one who notices that 50 or 60 new families would suggest around 50 or 60K additional  per annum in the parishes bank account? I doubt that is enough to balance the books, though it certainly is good news.  Even this little fact the Bishop is unable to mention, I guess because it concerns the very secular and yet very real topic of (ugh) money.

Let’s be real.

The reversal must have included factors other than faithfulness, sacraments, or ministries.

Fact: the parishioners were royally p*ss*d off at their closing in the fall of 2009 because they had just spent 400K of their own money (with the Bishop’s approval) within the last few years for elevator improvements.  What a colossal blunder that oversight was.  Did the Bishop say that he was wrong? Nope.  Did he even acknowledge the mistake? Nope.  Does it matter? Absolutely.

It matters just as much as the fact that around 200K in rental fees from the City of Springfield stopped coming into the IOICC yearly budget just as a new pastor was being appointed.  The new pastor was not told of the implications of the shortfall prior to his appointment, a shortfall which would clearly cripple his ministry, and maybe even drag the parish down toward financial ruin.  Can you blame him for being angry? Does this explain anything about why he went shoulder-to-shoulder with the parishioners in demanding a reversal?

Needless to say, none of this back story complicates Diocesan press releases.

Then, there's the fact that the pastor is reported to be moving on.  This is common knowledge at IOICC, announced from the pulpit, I am told, and yet this information is missing in action when it comes to reporting. Doesn't the Diocese want to tell the whole story?  Apparently not. But when important facts are left out, people are bound to speculate, and this chatter does not always put the Diocese in a favorable light. Can you blame those who are speculating?

It would be hard to make a case that the addition of 50 or 60 families are going to be the linchpin that turns around the loss of the 200K a year from the City of Springfield rentals.  Maybe that case can be made, maybe not.  Maybe the proposed daycare program at the former school will blossom, maybe not. Maybe more information about the plans of the pastor will come out. All of that remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, all of this code just gets in the way for those who want and deserve truthful explanations for the reversal. In the absence of a straight-forward explanation from the chancery that rings true, let's try to break this code.

The monetary situation, some of which I have outlined, is certainly important. The elevator incident, too. But, more important by far was the simple fact that when they were closed, IOICC refused to die.

IOICC parishioners showed fund-raising ability, they showed smarts in putting up billboards, and they showed guts in picketing on the Bishop’s front lawn. All of this was in fidelity to Catholic principles that a parish is forever, and that the people, not the Bishop, own the parish.  They made it clear that they were righteously angry, and that they were not going away. 

In short, they challenged the Bishop, not the other way around.  And, the Bishop folded.

It seems to this observer that this is the lesson of IOICC, and it’s one that other parishes need to understand, and take to heart.  Bishops are used to making parishes react, and here, for once, the parish made the Bishop react. They did this in an intelligent yet passionate way by choosing non-violent direct actions to make their case. This is nothing less than love in action, and it is extremely powerful.

The reversal would seem to have little or nothing to do with sacramental integrity, faithfulness, or ministries. On the other hand, it would seem to have a great deal to do with parishioner's integrity, with their faithfulness, with their ministry to be the People of God in the place where they live.

Let’s look at another aspect of this controversy.  When the announcements were made about the reversal, we heard from the Diocesan press office:
Dupont said the need for pastoral planning in the diocese was something that could not be ignored. “Suffice it to say, bishop would have preferred to close no parishes, but the current reality in western Massachusetts left us no choice.”

Here we have a telling admission, namely, that “pastoral planning” (as understood by Elliot St.) is a reaction.  The Diocese put it off as long as possible. "Pastoral planning" means down-sizing, pure and simple.  It is not about pastoral care.  It is not about planning on an ongoing, dynamic basis, and working with the people in the pews to make the church better.  Diocesan pastoral planning, is about management and reaction. The flip side to this would be collaboration between laity and clergy about what to do.....a discussion in which the outcome is not known beforehand.

This admission about down-sizing is also a prominent feature of the lawsuit in federal court in which the Bishop is trying to throw out the designation of Our Lady of Hope as a historic district. In much the same language John Egan, lead attorney for the Diocese, argues that, quote:
“Over the last several years, the Diocese has gone through the painful process of pastoral planning. I describe the process as painful because it resulted in parish closings. These closings are the result of a decline in the number of priests available to serve the Catholic people in the Diocese and a decline in the Catholic population in Western Massachusetts.”

There you have it.  Fewer priests, fewer parishes, a la the Mullin Report.  Also, the implication that the only reason “pastoral planning” is even on the radar is that the numbers are down all around. Otherwise, it is clear, THEY WOULD NOT BE DOING IT.

This  sort of “pastoral planning” (better known as management-by-crisis) is not supported by canon law, natural law, or any other doctrine that you might like to bring up. It is the result of a corporate culture (and an old-fashioned corporate culture at that), and it is a top-down reaction, both of which continue to characterize Diocesan attitudes far more than the quaint belief in a community founded by Jesus Christ.

Is it any wonder that they continue to lose the parishioners who used to be in the churches at the same time that they convert those same churches into empty real estate parcels?