Card. Burke with do’s and don’t’s of parish, church closures

Hearts can break when churches close. But if the church cannot be repaired, or if people are not paying the bills… what to do? Sometimes they must close.

However, I think there are many case in which a church does not have to be closed… but it is closed all the same for one “reason” or another. There are, in fact, parish churches which could be revived with, for example, the use of the older form of Mass.

In any event, one of the Church’s greatest jurists, His Eminence Raymond Card. Burke has comments about law and closing churches.

From Catholic Review with my emphases:

Hew to canon law when closing churches, Cardinal Burke says
May 09, 2014

By George P. Matysek Jr.

When considering the suppression of parishes or the closing of church buildings, bishops should hew closely to canon law not simply because it’s a legal requirement of the church, Cardinal Raymond L. Burke said, but because it helps foster unity.

In a May 7 interview with the Catholic Review, the prefect of the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s highest court, said following proper procedures helps ensure legitimate decisions.

When we don’t follow the requirements of the law, then people rightly claim that they’ve been aggrieved by this,” said Cardinal Burke, who was a featured speaker at the Eastern Regional Conference of the Canon Law Society of America, held May 6-8 at the Hotel Monaco in Baltimore. The cardinal’s presentation was closed to the media, but he granted a brief interview to the Catholic Review.

“(When) we do follow the requirements of the law,” he said, “even if we take a decision that’s unfavorable to people, at least they know that it was taken legitimately with respect to what the church requires for that decision.”

According to canon law, a bishop has the authority to suppress (close) a parish when there is a “just” reason. [That’s the kicker, ain’t it?  What is a “just” reason?] He must consult with his diocesan presbyteral council, and parishioners have the right to make their views heard.

Closing a church building, a process canon law refers to as relegating it to “profane, but not sordid use,” requires that a bishop have a grave reason for the closure.

Cardinal Burke noted that when discerning whether to reduce buildings to profane use, dioceses should “avoid presuppositions that are not correct,” including the notion that a parish can have only one church. It is possible for a parish to have two or more church buildings, he said. Although a parish may be suppressed, its buildings may continue to be used as part of another parish.

If a church is being closed because the parish doesn’t have the means to keep up more than one church, Cardinal Burke said, “then you have to demonstrate that, in fact, there aren’t the means there for the church to be maintained.” [So, if there are means, that is, the place is paying its bills and keeping the place up, then that can’t be used legitimately as an argument for closing it.]

The cardinal, a former bishop of La Crosse, Wis., and a former archbishop of St. Louis, added that sometimes a church is in “such a terrible state of deterioration” or has suffered some calamity that has left it so seriously damaged that it would be a burden for a parish to maintain.

“All those things simply have to be documented,” he said.

The laity plays a key role in the health of churches, Cardinal Burke said.

“Especially in this country (the United States), the existence of churches depends on the generosity of the laity,” he explained. “If the laity aren’t contributing generously, these churches can’t continue.”  [If you want your church to stay open you have to pay for your church to stay open.]

Maintaining multiple churches within a single parish requires a strong commitment from the laity, he added, who are often entrusted with the maintenance and care of church buildings.

“In my own experience as a bishop, I found the lay faithful to be exemplary in this,” Cardinal Burke said. “In the first diocese I served, there were a number of these churches, and they were kept up, cared for completely by the laity and they did good work.”

Cardinal Burke said he knows no bishop “in his right mind” who would want to close a parish unnecessarily. He acknowledged that it is always “a source of a lot of suffering for the lay faithful.”  [I believe His Eminence is being kind.  I think there are bishops who want to close certain parishes for ideological reasons, not because the place is too run down or isn’t paying the bills.]

“The bishop and the priests have to provide as best they can for the spiritual needs of the parishioners with the material goods that they have available,” he said.

Bishops must be good stewards, he said, and use “prudential judgment” in how material resources can be best used. He cautioned that there shouldn’t be a prejudice against keeping church buildings open.

“The bishop needs to have before him all the factual information in order to know the best way to decide with regard to a particular church,” Cardinal Burke said.  [I think that the lay people who pay the bills need that information as well.]

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  1. Chatto says:

    I know there are bishops out there who want to close churches for idealogical reasons, Father, but I’d suggest they’re the very definition of bishops who aren’t “in their right mind” as His Eminence says. Of course, if you asked them, they’d say they were being perfectly sound, but they would, wouldn’t they? A mad man is someone who’s loft everything except his reason, right?

  2. Joseph-Mary says:

    I love Cardinal Burke! When he was removed from two congregations in the curia, that was distressing to me. But he carries on! I trust him too and I cannot say that about every prelate.

  3. Dundonianski says:

    When in the depths of despair I find this remarkable prelate to be quite a quite inspirational beacon of light amidst a very dark period for those of us “restorationist/pelagians/fashionistas et al” The good cardinal does run the risk of being a turbulent priest, let us all pray hard for him.

  4. Perhaps you had this in mind Father, but one of the great success stories of the power of the traditional Latin Mass to prevent Church closings is the takeover of All Saints Catholic Church in Minneapolis by the FSSP. It’s gone from depleted and withering to packed every Sunday by the introduction of the Sacraments according to the old books.

  5. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I haven’t heard from the German Egyptian for a while. But up in his neck of the woods in “God’s country” (the rural northern part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati), many many years ago, it was announced by the archdiocese that they were going to close the local parish — because it was _assumed_ that such a small old rural parish must be losing money and in debt.

    However, the parishioners produced their books and showed that not only did they have their buildings paid off, make their budget every year, and have savings in the bank, but that they routinely donated money to the Archdiocese for its operating expenses.

    Oh, the embarrassment….

  6. APX says:

    And let’s not forget churches can be taken apart and moved if it’s not feasible to maintain the parish in its current community. Thus at least preserving the church building, many being historical pieces of art, and allowing it to still function as a Catholic Church parish in a different city.

  7. Pastor Bonus says:

    His Eminence is of course right. I think though there is another criteria that may be brought to into consideration when closing churches and parishes and that is the lack of priests. It may well be the case the a parish church is finically viable and expmelary lay help in keeping it open but if the bishop doesn’t have enough priests is that a ‘just’ reason? As you say Father Z, some bishops may wish to close parishes for ideological reasons but I think the opposite cam also be true, whereby a type of Protestant ecclesiology is promoted, churches and parishes with no priests, daily ‘Eucharistic services’ until in the end the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is no longer seen as central to everything else, personally I don’t see these kinds of parishes inspiring vocations, to say the least.

  8. frjim4321 says:

    Although I am not a fan of this prelate, I would agree that any ordinary would ignore this advice at his own peril.

  9. Phil_NL says:

    Card Burke is of course right, but he can adress only some elements of the issue in a short interview. Allow me to add another, which I think is at least as relevant in some countries.

    Here in the Netherlands, church closings rarely coincide with suppression of the parish; the general format is first that there is a lack of priests, leading a single priest to be assigned (de facto or de jure) to multiple parishes, or a “pastoral team” of 2-3 priests and some laymen, perhaps with a permanent deacon, to be put on a whole host of parishes.

    When that evetually becomes unmanagable, or the financial resources dwindle, or the bishop or the priest is simply fed up with it, parishes are merged. At that stage there are two scenarios: either all the parishes that are combining are poor, and seek to achieve financial viability by selling off -by now – excess church buildings, or a nearby wealthier parish is found to soak up the bills as best as it may.

    And it’s this latter process that holds some danger: while it is good to help one’s poorer neighbour, it doesn’t help anyone in the long run if those parishes which happen to be lucky enough to have endowments of some kind, or a relatively rich or generious set of parisioners, are bled dry too. There need to be some shining beacons left.

    Luckily some bishops realised this, but I fear plenty do not. It may be worth looking into ways to make sure funds intented for a certain church/parish remain available to them. Being able to pay your bills is great, being able to pay other’s bills too, at least on paper, is dangerous indeed.

  10. Athelstan says:

    It may well be the case the a parish church is financially viable and exemplary lay help in keeping it open but if the bishop doesn’t have enough priests is that a ‘just’ reason?

    It might be a reason for more use of clusters. Cardinal Burke said explicitly that a shortage of priests is not by itself sufficient reason to close a parish.

    But: if that parish has produced its share, or more than its share, of vocations in recent years, it would be particularly unjust to close it. That parish has done its share to provide priests. And, in this context, a certain daily TLM offering parish in Manhattan being threatened with closure has indeed produced more than its share of vocations in recent years.

  11. Lin says:

    Less than two years ago, we had three Sunday masses and all were full. Since our progressive pastor arrived, we still have three masses that are less than 50% full. Preaching social justice and love has not worked. Today we heard that even Pope Francis is encouraging governments to redistribute the wealth. Last week, it was all about the evils of corporations!

  12. Austin Catholics says:

    “There are, in fact, parish churches which could be revived with, for example, the use of the older form of Mass” I have to say, this is a very good idea. I am not a Latin mass guy myself, but failing parishes are great places to try new things and experiment. You traditionalists have an opportunity here!

  13. Rob83 says:

    The Cardinal is right when it comes to following canon law. I would add that it is also important that the process is transparent to the parishoners, especially when it comes to matters of finance and maintenance.

    A local group of laity won an appeal this year with the Congregation for the Clergy in which the Congregation determined that a sizable repair estimate from the diocese – $12 million – was not a sufficient reason to demolish or sell a church, particularly since the laity were able to demonstrate that they had the financial means to make the needed repairs over the near-to-medium term (this church belongs to a merged parish, so they have more than one church building). The bishop is appealing, but Burke’s comments don’t hold out much hope the bishop will get his way on this. It will be interesting to see what happens if the bishop loses, since all public comments from the diocese have said he is opposed to ever having the church be used for worship again.

  14. frjim4321 says:

    The Cardinal is right when it comes to following canon law. I would add that it is also important that the process is transparent to the parishoners, especially when it comes to matters of finance and maintenance.

    Rob, you are indeed correct. There have been ordinaries that failed to follow the law and now have a dozen white elephants to support.

  15. Gratias says:

    Every Parish that we lose in the USA that is over 100 years old is irretrievable. We need these churches to keep the Faith as it is and was. Otherwise this Catholic beauty will be replaced with utilitarian square buildings with low ceilings and small windows.

    Just went to a Latin Mass at Old St. Mary’s in D.C., it was perfect for the purpose. I say to Cardinal Dolan in Manhattan : keep Holy Innocents open too. As for us lay people that like the Latin Mass, please donate very heavily, this will keep the Faith for other generations. We are small in numbers but hard working and heavy tax exempt charity to our own parish is a noble goal. Pay to play, but locally. Our tiny Una Voce chapters have worked marvels here in the USA. The US may still save the liturgy.

  16. Imrahil says:

    As for parishes (as opposed to Churches), priest shortage may possibly be a reason to close them down.

    After all, the times they are a-changing. We have now: the car, an increased willingness to use it especially among the rural population, a certain trend of urbanisation in addition, and to all that a declined number of Church members, Church attendance, Confession receptance, and a comparative priest shortage (w.r.t. the numbers of priests of earlier times, not the ratio to Mass attenders, to be silent of penitents – we have a priest flood w.r.t. the latter, btw.).

    All of which ongoings do not seem to be in phase-out, this side of the horizon.

    Somewhere near I live, there is a municipalty which has some 2500 inhabitants. Most of them Catholics, yes (it’s rural; the non-believer and Protestant part in a Catholic area tends to concentrate even more in a city). The municipalty is split into two (in numbers 2) parishes, one of which sits in a village of some hundred inhabitants. Next to it there is another municipalty of 2500 (one parish) and a municipalty of 750 (also one parish) (which latter two from, secularly, an “association of municipalties” meaning that they’re essentially governed together).

    These four parishes form a so-called “association of parishes”, which means they are run by one priest (who has to keep separate books for each and meet with the pastoral councils of each on a regular basis, etc, not to mention celebrating a whole lot of Sunday Masses driving through his area).

    It is clear that we have fewer priests, and even fewer parish priests, than we could use. (There are other “associations of parishes” which go into the tens of thousands of inhabitants.) However, I do wonder whether in today’s times and in such-like situations (found rather often in the countryside), even supposing an infinite supply of priests, it would make sense to keep all these parishes up. Downgrading parishes to filial-churches (with one Mass a month and on the most important solemnities) and instead appointing vicars to the parish might even make sense if he had all the priests (which we don’t). There are effects of the technical progress of mobilization which may make the needs of today different from those of the past.

  17. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “If a church is being closed because the parish doesn’t have the means to keep up more than one church, Cardinal Burke said, ‘then you have to demonstrate that, in fact, there aren’t the means there for the church to be maintained.’ ”

    Is this always a question of ‘means’ demonstrably available at that moment, or can plausibly ways of generating new means come into the picture?

    If, for example, people can crowd-fund a Gosnell film, perhaps they could at least crowd-fund-boost the continued life of a parish church.

    I don’t knwo what possibilities and dangers there are in seeking, say, various sort of grants…

    Phil_NL: do you happen to have any detailed sense of the funding of St. Willibrord’s in Utrecht, which seems from the website often to have free concerts (with collection) between the Latin N.O. morning Mass and the Latin Rosary followed my E.F. in the later afternoon on Sundays (but also other concerts with tickets required)?

  18. Phil_NL says:

    Venerator Sti Lot,

    Sorry, no clue. Different diocese.

    A few thoughts though: such arrangements are not unique, my own parish occasionally has the same, and it usually goes through the network of the organist who is a professional musician. If the concert is a fundraiser for the church, or for the orchestra or choir (which would hopefully mean the services of the organist during Masses are procured cheaply) is often hard to tell.

    Moreover, all Dutch parish councils I’ve seen thusfar tend to be very, very closed about their finances, volunteering no information if they can get away with it. I daresay most Dutch Catholics have no idea at all how good or bad their parish finances are, except based on how often (for projects, restaurations etc) and how insistent the priest or the treasurer asks for more.

    I’d like to know if that situation is the same in other countries.

  19. Cordelio says:

    Cardinal Burke’s remarks highlight an important distinction between eliminating parishes and closing churches. In any given case, the same reasons might drive the need for both, but this might not be so in all cases. Perhaps there might be some way to effectively “mothball” churches against future need.

    There have been many articles in the news lately discussing the marked demographic shift (at least in the U.S.) back to the cities from the suburbs. The serious financial downside of shortsightedness in this matter of closing and selling urban churches might become apparent in the near future.

  20. MikeM says:

    It’s tough for bishops in many large older diocese, though. Populations change, the needs of different communities change, and the Church is saddled with the infrastructure to serve communities of sixty years ago. In some northeastern dioceses, there are neighborhoods where there are six churches within four blocks, and the once Catholic neighborhood isn’t that Catholic anymore. The Catholics who crammed into small ethnic ghettos in the early part of the last century aren’t there anymore. With scarce resources, do we cling to every old, nearly empty building? Or do we trim what’s not necessary to redeploy those resources where they are needed? And might the smaller number of Catholics in some of those many-churched neighborhoods be better off, in the long run, if they all shared one church than if they were all divided among ten?

  21. lucy says:

    Sadly, we have churches that have been turned over to Protestant factions. We have asked for years and years for a dedicated traditional Mass parish church and have been repeatedly told no. It’s surely an ideological issue. It seems the bishop prefers to have dedicated deacons in many churches rather than allowing an order to come in and revive the parish church. We keep praying for what we need, knowing that if God wills it, it will happen eventually.

  22. afanco says:

    Yes, a parish can have 3 Churches. (Mine does)

    But with a combined age of ~400 years, there’s lots of upkeep.

    The Lord allowed the weather to bring this sharply into focus last November.

    Now we are in the midst of a capital campaign. If non-parishioners want to help…

    It’s not all bad news, however, out of our Tridentine community we have an 0rdination (Lord willing) this year!


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