Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Lennon, Had -- Vatican Orders Reopening of 13 Cleveland Churches

In the most sweeping move yet of a newly-enhanced Roman scrutiny on the epidemic of American parish consolidations, it emerged earlier today that the Holy See has overturned the closings of 13 of the 50 Cleveland church buildings shuttered by Bishop Richard Lennon in 2009.

The move was first reported by the Associated Press, quoting Peter Borre, the Boston-based lawyer who's aided the efforts of displaced parishioners in several dioceses to have their church closings reversed on appeal to the Vatican.

According to the groups' advocate, the move was decided by the Congregation for the Clergy last week. However, the judgment may be appealed to the Apostolic Signatura -- the Vatican's supreme tribunal, which would have the final word.

Amid dwindling figures of active clergy, Mass attendance and other resources, coupled with decades of sizable population shifts, the nation's dioceses have downsized as many as two thousand parishes over the last decade, an overwhelming majority of them in the "Rust Belt" of the Northeast and northern Midwest, where some century-old parish configurations have been slashed by as much as half their number.

While canon law has always allowed for appeals -- in canonical-speak, administrative recourse -- of episcopal actions to the Vatican, until recent months the Roman Curia had customarily granted broad leeway to the judgment of local bishops in their shaping of reorganization plans. Even as late as 2010, a Vatican ruling sustaining closings in the archdiocese of Boston (which shuttered over 60 parishes in 2005) advanced that the good of a local church as a whole provided sufficient justification for the process, irrespective of the case for a particular parish's solvency.

In the relatively rare event recourses from the faithful were granted by Rome under the prior understanding, the decision would almost uniformly avoid the substance of the recourse, instead overturning a bishop on grounds of violating the canons in some procedural aspect of the closing process. While Borre told the wire that procedural concerns were the cited cause of the Cleveland rulings, over the last year the Clergy office -- which oversees the first instance of parish appeals -- has quietly begun taking a more critical eye toward the downsizings, ordering the reopening of a handful of churches in Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.

While those rulings signaled a new trend toward a stricter standard for reviewing the consolidations, the combined number of parishes spared by Rome prior to today has now more than doubled. In prior instances, however, it's important to underscore that the Vatican judgments did not alter the suppression or merger of the parishes involved, but merely ordered that the shuttered churches be reopened as worship sites.

Prominent among the overturned decisions is a reversal of the closing of St Peter's church in Cleveland, whose pastor and community broke from the diocese in 2010 to remain together, and have since been worshipping in a converted industrial building. As of last summer, the group's cleric was said to be awaiting a canonical penalty determined by Lennon, but to date, none has ostensibly been applied.

Just as notably, the move comes as the Vatican's second slap in a year at the embattled bishop, a mathematician and self-trained canonist whose straight-shooting style coupled with the scope of the closings saw Cleveland's downsizing erupt into the most ferocious and bitter parish planning face-off the Stateside church has seen in the last quarter-century.

After complaints on the moves grabbed the attention of Rome and at least one parish's final Mass turned into a shouting match, the Holy See dispatched an Apostolic Visitation into the 750,000-member diocese last July, led by Bishop John "Mort" Smith, the retired ordinary of Trenton and a highly-regarded figure among the US bishops.

While Smith's surveying of the tensions surrounding Lennon's ministry was quickly conducted over several days, eight months later, the findings of the investigation remain unknown.

At the time, Lennon said he requested the inquest himself "because a number of persons have written to Rome expressing their concerns about my leadership." Yet with other reports having indicated that the Cleveland prelate's "Mortification" was primarily pushed by the late Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, it's entirely possible that a different stance on the part of his successor, Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ², could short-circuit the process and a Vatican judgment.

Soon to turn 65, Lennon took part in the ad limina visit with Ohio and Michigan's Region VI early last month. Based in Ohio's second-largest city, Cleveland is the Buckeye State's largest local church.

In further evidence of an upped Vatican skepticism over wide-ranging parish restructuring, speculation circulated late last year that Rome was considering a fresh set of guidelines to govern consolidation processes. At present, ongoing planning efforts likely to significantly reshape major US dioceses include first-wave studies in Baltimore and Philadelphia and -- less than a decade since its first sweeping reconfiguration -- a second wave in Boston, whose current 288 parishes could end up grouped into a much smaller number of units, each comprising a cluster of churches which would share a single ministry team.

Late last month, a similar second wave in the 1.4 million-member Detroit archdiocese yielded plans for the closing or consolidation of over 50 parishes in the short-term future, with the remaining 200-plus churches being called on to submit clustering plans that may be implemented as circumstances require. Meanwhile, with some American seminaries currently reporting their largest enrollments in decades, the crunch of active priests is likely to intensify over the next decade, as the last large classes of clerics ordained in the years around Vatican II reach retirement age.

A spokesman for the Cleveland church told the city's Plain-Dealer that the diocese only received the formal documents communicating the decisions late today, and declined comment until the contents could be studied.