CARDINAL Sean O'Malley may not win a popularity sweepstakes with parishioners occupying five Boston-area churches; but his restraint toward the vigil movement, which after four years is spreading to other dioceses, might well be a model for other bishops confronting parishioners who sit rather than vacate.
O'Malley has tacitly acknowledged that sacred spaces carry a cultural memory of bonded loyalties in certain neighborhoods. Some closures make sense, as when an area changes drastically. So do negotiated consolidation plans. Still, O'Malley has wisely borne the expense of letting vigil occupants stay as he tries to reverse the financial mess inherited from Cardinal Bernard Law. O'Malley's patience underscores the cardinal law of politics: If you want money, make people like you.
A worst-case scenario erupted last week in New Orleans. Police raided two churches that had been occupied 10 weeks, two days after Archbishop Alfred Hughes' spokeswoman said police would not be called. TV cameras showed cops bash in a door at Our Lady of Good Counsel, "the pearl of the Garden District," and arrest Poppy Z. Brite, a novelist, and Harold Baquet, a photographer.
"I'm quite sure I was not the only one watching last night's newscast who was flooded with images of uniformed Nazis dragging innocent Jews out of the protective sanctuaries bravely provided by the true Christians of their day or of municipal police handcuffing American citizens as they tried to eat a simple meal at a dime-store lunch counter," wrote Lisa Slatten on the website of the other vigil parish, St. Henry. "How much more shame must I bear due to the acts of my church?"
The backlash against Hughes, a Boston native and former auxiliary bishop under Law, has surpassed the response to his poor handling of several pedophilia cases here. Where Boston's financial crisis was triggered by the $85 million settlement to victims, New Orleans has paid only $2 million according to church figures.
The financial crisis in New Orleans stems from Hurricane Katrina. The archdiocese has reported $104 million in uninsured losses from the storm. The church's self-insurance policy failed to pool sufficient funds to cover risk in a city prone to flooding.
With 142 parishes before Katrina, New Orleans now has 108. Several parishes were destroyed; several others merged without great conflict.
At a meeting last year with Good Counsel leaders, Hughes assured them the parish would not close, according to seven affidavits. St. Henry parishioners say they had similar assurances.
Hughes says he was misunderstood. And how.
The hold-out parishes are in solid neighborhoods untouched by the flood. St. Henry had cash reserves of $150,000 and generated $12,000 a month rental income on its properties. Our Lady of Good Counsel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was sending $2,300 a week in assessment, or church tax fees, to the archdiocese, while supporting programs for the poor. Parish leader Barbara Fortier had commitments of $300,000 to establish a parish endowment. Hughes, who called on parishioners in the two churches to merge with nearby St. Stephen, told Fortier the money could only go to the new parish. The donors held back.
Before Christmas, St. Stephen's new pastor, Monsignor Christopher Nalty, met with the vigil leaders hoping to ease tensions. St. Henry leader Alden Hagedorn wanted to end the vigil "if we could get some concessions. We thought we had the foundation laid. Then Nalty goes out of town on a scheduled retreat - and we get raided."
A turf war caused that. Monsignor Michael Jacques, who conceived the closure plan (without lay involvement), and Auxiliary Bishop Roger Morin, a driving force in its execution, are a generation older than Nalty. Nalty, who recently returned from several years working in Rome, got a club on the knuckles for reaching out to parishioners instead of closing ranks with clerical old boys.
Hughes, 76, has submitted his resignation to Rome. His successor's best chance to repair the damage is to compromise. Reopen the two parishes on a limited basis. Make financial disclosure. And appeal for funds on the radical basis of - honesty.
Jason Berry, author of the novel "Last of the Red Hot Poppas," is writing a book on the Catholic Church's financial issues.