Catholics take legal action against archbishop’s plan for large-scale restructuring of parishes
The lay faithful have launched 'Save Our St. Louis Parishes' in an effort to halt the merger of up to 90 of the archdiocese's 178 parishes.
ST. LOUIS (LifeSiteNews) — Catholics of the Archdiocese of St. Louis launched a project named “Save Our St. Louis Parishes” to prevent the restructuring of the parishes of the archdiocese, proposed initially as part of a strategic planning effort by Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski.
The initiative is a response of the lay faithful of the archdiocese, who are taking legal action within Church law against the proposals of the archbishop to make sweeping changes affecting parishes across the archdiocese. The group’s online petition states the laity of the parishes “had little input into these plans that revealed “the most sweeping changes” to the St. Louis Archdiocese in its 196-year history.
The archbishop announced the strategic plan for the archdiocese in January 2022. The plan, titled “All Things New,” cited the steady decline in vocations in St. Louis as well as a decline in Church attendance as reasons for a major restructuring of the diocese that would include a large-scale shuffling of parishes communities. The archbishop initially proposed that up to 90 of the 178 parishes currently in operation could face potential closure and be merged to form “families of parishes.”
The archdiocese hired Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) to draw up the initial plan for parish closures, with little opportunity for the faithful who would be affected to effectively give their input. The avalanche of changes came to a halt, however, when diocesan authorities were made aware of the gross violations of canon law their actions would entail.
In particular, Church law requires that there be a “just cause” when a parish is closed and merged with another, and the Congregation for the Clergy clarified in a 2013 document that the “just cause” had to be particular to each of the parishes involved. The Congregation wrote, “Although the Bishop may take into consideration the needs of surrounding parishes or even that of the diocese as a whole, he must always motivate his decree with a cause that is specific, i.e., ad rem, to the individual parish or church under consideration … The reason(s) for modifying a particular parish must be relevant to that individual parish, i.e., the cause must be ad rem. Generalized or diocesan motivations alone cannot justify the modification of a specific parish.”
In a 2020 instruction on parish closures, the Congregation for the Clergy even more clearly specifically stipulated certain reasons that do not justify the closing or merging of parishes. “The suppression of Parishes by extinctive union is legitimate for causes directly related to a specific Parish. Some causes are not sufficient, such as, for example, the scarcity of diocesan clergy, the general financial situation of a Diocese, or other conditions within the community that are presumably reversible and of brief duration (e.g., numerical consistency, lack of financial self-sufficiency, the urban planning of the territory). As a condition for the legitimacy of this type of provision, the requisite motivations must be directly and organically connected to the interested Parish community, and not on general considerations or theories, or based solely ‘on principle.’”
Regarding the permanent closure of a church building, whether it be a chapel, oratory, or parish church, the Congregation reminded bishops in 2013 that according to Canon Law, “a sacred edifice which has been given over perpetually for divine worship should retain that sacred character if at all possible, and only a grave reason to the contrary is sufficient to justify relegating a church to profane but not sordid use (cf. can. 1222 §2).”
The Congregation stipulated that, “Because churches can remain sacred edifices even though they are only occasionally or even rarely used … the following reasons in themselves do not constitute grave cause: i. a general plan of the diocese to reduce the number of churches, ii. the church is no longer needed, iii. the parish has been suppressed, iv. the number of parishioners has decreased.” Again, in 2020, the Congregation reiterated that “the legitimate causes for decreeing such a reduction [to profane but not sordid use] do not include reasons like the lack of clergy, demographic decline or the grave financial state of the Diocese.”
According to Church law, then, objectors argued, even if the archdiocese could justify closing and merging some of its parishes, it would not thereby be free to sell or permanently close church buildings — a hope that had been voiced by diocesan officials, with finances among the issues being tackled.
Under the initial plan, many schools were also going to be closed, since they are presently tied to parishes. As part of the restructuring, the remaining parish schools were potentially going to be taken out from the authority of the respective parish’s pastor and placed under a diocesan board.
According to Catholics of the archdiocese, however, the decision of which specific schools would be closed — which was originally going to be made even prior to the determination of which parishes would close — was postponed because parents were so upset.
After huge backlash from the lay faithful of the archdiocese, who felt they were not sufficiently or adequately heard, the archdiocese withdrew its initial, dramatic plan to close more than half its parishes, and this past February proposed instead to form “pastorates” in which pastors would be assigned to more than one parish for much of the archdiocese. The priests assigned as pastors for these groups of parishes would not be drawn from the currently assigned pastors but would be newly appointed.
The new proposal has also drawn strong criticisms, especially from priests of the archdiocese, who will foreseeably be greatly overworked. It is thought that the number of Masses at individual parishes will likely be decreased, with diocesan authorities estimating a resulting loss of 20 percent Mass attendance by current Catholics in such parishes. Objectors see the scenario as merely a different means intended to achieve the same ultimate goal of closing more than half of the parishes of the archdiocese — now as a consequence of the foreseeable decrease in Mass attendance.
An initiative called “Save the Rome of the West” was begun to inform St. Louis Catholics of the situation and the requirements in Canon Law that the archdiocese is bound to follow. The initiative also indicates what legal recourse within Church law the faithful have who might be affected or harmed by any closure.
One such canonical recourse available to Catholics of the archdiocese is a “procurator mandate,” according to which an ecclesiastical lawsuit against the Archdiocese of St. Louis regarding the proposed parish closures and restructuring will be brought to the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, with a canon lawyer deputed to represent those who sign the mandate.
As the website for the initiative “Save Our St. Louis Parishes,” explains, “A Mandate is a document in Canon Law that serves both as a personal petition to oppose the closures/mergers of parishes, and as the appointment of a person to act on your behalf in this matter.”
State Senator Robert Onder has agreed to be the procurator in the case, and Philip Gray, a canon lawyer with more than 30 years’ experience, has agreed to help pro bono.
The initiative states that “a core group is preparing a Petition that will address specific canonical points about the parish closures/mergers suggested by ‘All Things New.’ The reasons given by CLI and the Archdiocese for such drastic changes are not clear and the process has not been transparent, nor have we had a chance to be heard or consulted through this process.”
The mandate, which already has over 3,100 signatures, states:
Having interest in this matter as a baptized Catholic, or married to a Catholic, with domicile or quasi-domicile in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, I oppose any intention or act by ecclesiastical authority that would result in the notable alteration of the Archdiocese of St. Louis by way of large-scale parish mergers, or any other notable alteration, at this time and under the present circumstances. I oppose the use of an outside consultation firm, particularly one that may or has introduced predetermined proposals and thereby excluded the possibility of lawful and genuine collaboration with the Faithful who would be most affected by such alterations within the Archdiocese… By this mandate, I firmly establish my intention to protect my interests in this matter by pursuing petitions and lawful appeals in accord with Canon Law, even appeals to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura or Petitions to the Holy Father.
Sadly, in the approach of the archdiocese, although the principal reason given for the mega parish-merger plan was the steady decline of vocations — with the archdiocese losing on average 10 priests per year from ministry due to deaths and retirements, while only ordaining on average only four priests each year — it appears that promoting and increasing vocations is neither a priority nor focus of the archbishop and his advisers. The vocations director is not full time, or is priestly ministry among young people in high schools and colleges given strong focus. The claimed shortage of priests has also been hotly disputed by the faithful, who compiled a list of priests serving in the archdiocese, arguing that there is no such alleged shortage.
Further, according to St. Louis Catholics, the things that have proven to draw young men to the priesthood, such as a more reverent and traditional celebration of the Mass, with the use of Latin and Gregorian chant, or offering Mass ad orientem, are not encouraged.
According to one St. Louis Catholic, who spoke with LifeSiteNews on condition of anonymity about the decline in vocations, the army of women who invade the sanctuary at parish Masses and the banal singing of the church music of the 1970s has only served to alienate young men and give them the impression that the Catholic faith is effeminate. The man lamented that young men are leaving the Church before they have ever experienced anything that would allow them to hear the call of Christ. He affirmed that “to draw more vocations to the priesthood, we must challenge the assumption that Faith and Liturgy need to be watered down to attract the young,” adding that a bishop needs to be strong and courageous enough to make enemies of an older generation of liberal priests, whose banal liturgies and weak preaching have done little to keep the pews filled.
LifeSiteNews also spoke to Sen. Onder, the procurator representing St. Louis Catholics. Sen. Onder has delivered a letter to the archbishop asking him to meet concerning the diocesan plans for the future of St. Louis’ parishes. According to Onder, prior requests to meet with the archbishop and other diocesan authorities have been wholly ignored.
In the letter, which has been leaked to the public, among many objections to the approach and plans of the archdiocese, the procurator took issue with the blatant disregard for the salvation of souls manifested by diocesan authorities during meetings about the reconfiguration of parishes.
Onder wrote, “Repeatedly, archdiocesan officials have admitted that the implementation of All Things New will drive at least 20% of active Catholics away from the Faith (Father Christopher Martin, Vicar for Strategic Planning, 19 August 2022 and 2 February 2023). Shockingly, some priests have openly said things like, ‘That’s not significant … they would leave anyway … they are not contributing much as it is … they are already lost …’ or similar statements. The recognition by archdiocesan officials that All Things New will cause immediate and grave harm to the salvation of souls and the admission that this is not considered significant is scandalous.”
Onder also argued that the large-scale transfer of pastors proposed in the archbishop’s most recent plans will only exacerbate mistrust toward the archdiocese and contribute further to the loss of souls. “Regarding the large-scale transfer of pastors, I ask you to consider how this will advance the pastoral care of the Faithful or provide advantage for the Church? There is significant mistrust right now due to the circumstances of how All Things New is being implemented. Changing pastors on so many parishes will only increase that mistrust and the number of souls lost.”
The procurator also criticized Archbishop Rozanski’s announcement that he plans to lower the retirement age of priests, all the while claiming the shortage of priests as the principal reason behind the proposals to close, merge, or restructure parishes. Calling the move a “manipulation of the situation,” Sen. Onder wrote, “I understand that the retirement age of a priest is 75 years, and that a pastor can continue (is encouraged by the Church) to continue in ministry if he is able. You have claimed that the Archdiocese does not have enough priests to go around. If that statement is true, by lowering the retirement age and effectively removing able-bodied priests from ministry, you will worsen a priest shortage and increase the mistrust among the Faithful. A reasonable person would consider this as manipulation of the situation to obtain a predetermined outcome-the closing of parishes and sale of parish churches.”
Sen. Onder affirmed to LifeSiteNews that the petition to Rome is being finalized and, in the coming weeks, he and Gray will bring the case against the archbishop’s sweeping plans to change the structure of the archdiocese to competent authorities in Rome on behalf of the more than 3,100 affected St. Louis Catholics who object to the proposals.
The “Save Our St. Louis Parishes” project is providing parishes with “packets” to assist in defending their integrity and future within the archdiocese. More information about the project can be found here and here.