"Clearly, some people will be angry, some people will be upset. But the status quo is not possible."
Those were the words of Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard three months ago as he anticipated the reaction to the Baltimore Roman Catholic archdiocese's downsizing of roughly a dozen city parishes. The long-awaited announcement by Cardinal William H. Keeler and Bishop Ricard finally came last Sunday: Our Lady of Lourdes in Ashburton will be closed Feb. 19 and 13 other churches will be merged or otherwise scaled back.
As Bishop Ricard predicted, some devoted parishioners will be angry that the neighborhood church to which they walked for years will no longer hold regular services. Others will be upset about having to start over at churches where they initially will be strangers.
But the bishop's third point is of overriding importance. The archdiocese can no longer afford the huge expense of operating 400-seat churches that are only quarter-filled on the best of Sundays.
Spiritual leaders tending to such temporal matters might strike some critics as unsavory. But this view ignores the tough realities faced by an archdiocese struggling with financial pressures, demographic shifts and a shortage of priests. Officials of the Baltimore archdiocese deserve credit for creating a reasonable plan that maintains the church's mission in the city, and for making these painful decisions in a sensitive and inclusive manner that drew on the advice of hundreds of lay members.
The argument might even be made that it is the churches themselves that have been abandoned over the years. Since the 1940s, suburban flight has helped produce a 75 percent drop in attendance at the city's Catholic parishes. Similarly, the exodus to the suburbs caused Protestant and Jewish congregations that had long been based in the city to move to the surrounding counties.
Blasphemous as it might sound to certain ears, churches are like businesses in that both depend on people coming to them. And if the people stop coming or they do so in lesser numbers, the church or business has to consider whether it makes sense to stay at that location.
Further restructuring of the archdiocese's churches seems likely in the years to come. Cardinal Keeler has suggested that even suburban parishes are in for the same scrutiny given to the city churches. Again, some people will be angry and upset, no matter the outcome. The bad feelings should be kept to a minimum, however, if archdiocesan officials make any future moves as sensitively as they devised the plans for the 14 city parishes.