Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley on Thursday (Nov. 15) launched an ambitious, five-year plan to consolidate local parish leadership and reinvigorate an archdiocese rocked by scandal, declining Mass attendance and a chronic shortage of priests.

Starting with a first phase in January, O’Malley’s “Disciples in Mission” initiative will reorganize the archdiocese’s 288 parishes into 135 “collaboratives,” or clusters of two or three parishes headed by a single pastor. Assistant pastors and other staff from local parishes will be reoriented to serve entire collaboratives. By 2016, every parish will be part of a collaborative.

The shift marks the latest major change for the 1.8 million Catholics in and around Boston, who grieved 69 parish closures in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Clustering parishes under shared leadership is now crucial, organizers say, in order to carry out the “New Evangelization” encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI.

“We are at a crossroads,” O’Malley said at a press conference. “Mass attendance and participation in parish life has declined over the past two generations ... We are committed to re-engage the culture (and) the current generation of Catholics.”

Though Massachusetts has more Catholics per capita than any other state, the Archdiocese of Boston has nonetheless struggled to recover from the abuse scandal that erupted in 2002. Membership fell by 180,000, or 8.2 percent, between 2000 and 2010, according to the 2010 U.S. Religion Census.

Determined not to repeat past mistakes when top-down decisions angered rank-and-file Catholics, a 19-member commission spent much of this year soliciting feedback and revising the plan through 200 open meetings that attracted some 20,000 local Catholics.

As collaboratives launch, parishes will operate as centers for the New Evangelization. This involves confronting secularization and emphasizing the need for “ongoing conversion” in the lives of Catholics. Each collaborative will develop a plan for identifying candidates for the priesthood, praying with them and mentoring them to accept vocations.

“One of the driving forces for the formation of this plan was the increasingly severe shortage of priests,” said Monsignor William Fay, co-chair of the commission that designed the plan. “We know how to fix that, and we have to fix that (through) good solid parishes ... where vocations are talked about on a regular basis.”

If O’Malley’s blueprint is successful, participation in parish life will increase and parishes will become financially sustainable, according to the plan. Inspiring Catholics who attend Mass only occasionally or monthly to start coming more regularly will be a primary goal of the plan, O’Malley said.

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