Home Books Looking at parish closures from different angles

Looking at parish closures from different angles

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“The Grace of Everyday Saints: How a Band of Believers Lost Their Church and Found Their Faith” by Julian Guthrie. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Boston, 2011). 288 pp., $25.

“No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns” by John C. Seitz. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2011). 322 pp., $39.95.

Julian Guthrie, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of “The Grace of Everyday Saints,” first met the “everyday saints” of St. Brigid Parish in 2004. By then, the Committee to Save St. Brigid Church had been meeting for 10 years in an effort to reopen their beloved church, which had been inexplicably suppressed in 1994.

Guthrie is a good writer and she has a palpable affection and admiration for the diverse people of this community, but she offers the fullest profiles of the group’s leaders:

— Irish-born Father Cyril O’Sullivan (“Father O”) risked being ostracized to confront now-retired Archbishop John M. Quinn, and despite his transfer to a parish in Marin County, he remains the spiritual center of this community in exile.

— Robert Bryan, a death penalty lawyer, a Southern Baptist married to a Catholic woman, was in the RCIA program when St. Brigid’s was closed. Bryan used his prodigious legal skills to discover evidence of then-unknown clerical sex abuse, the reason why a historic, pastorally and financially vibrant parish was slated for closure.

— Joe Dignan, to whom the book is dedicated (he died after a heart attack in 2006), successfully led the committee’s efforts to obtain landmark status for the exterior of St. Brigid’s after it was sold to the private Academy of Art University. Without losing its focus on St. Brigid’s, Guthrie narrates Joe’s personal journey from closeted gay man in a tumultuous marriage to an acceptance of his homosexuality.

Despite its strengths, Guthrie’s book is flawed by her decision to cast this as a black and white morality play, with beleaguered but indomitable parishioners confronting obdurate, deceitful church officials. Given the circumstances it is an understandable narrative, one that appeals to our delight in the resourcefulness of the underdog. Unfortunately her reliance on caricature instead of context fails to convey complexity, and what could have been an edifying book remains shallow and self-congratulatory.

John Seitz’s “No Closure” is a sophisticated and nuanced analysis of occupying vigils in the Boston Archdiocese.

In 2004, facing severe financial problems, a shortage of priests and declining attendance, then-Archbishop (now Cardinal) Sean P. O’Malley announced plans to close or consolidate 80 parishes. In response to the closures members at some parishes began 24-hour occupying vigils; five of these continue as of 2011.

The vigils became the focus of the doctoral research of Seitz, then a Harvard student and now an assistant professor of theology at Fordham University. Seitz is a capable and empathic writer who is an insightful observer of the occupations he observed most closely — suburban St. Jeremiah’s in Framingham, Mass., and the urban Italian national parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in East Boston.

Seitz situates the vigils in the context of Boston’s religious, social and political history, including its long-standing racial and ethnic tensions. The shift in theology and practice that was introduced by the Second Vatican Council had an impact on people’s experience and expectations of Catholic life, but the more immediate issue in Boston was the sexual abuse crisis. Anger toward the hierarchy did not dissipate with the December 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law.

The book’s greatest contribution is Seitz’s reflective consideration of how resisters wrestled with, rejected or appropriated teachings around sacrifice, sacred presence, belonging and obedience to religious authority.

These themes surfaced in many situations faced by the vigilers, from how to handle sacred objects that remained in the church building and the proper manner in which to conduct lay-led religious services, to ruptured relationships with former friends who were perceived as traitors because they joined the receiving parish.

Vigilers, Seitz writes, were involved in “the search for an acceptable Catholic maturity” and to this end they had to acknowledge, grieve and re-examine many aspects of their loyalty to the sacred spaces that were suddenly wrested away from them.

Seitz is a theologian, not a therapist, but this solid academic book is, ultimately, a sad one. It is impossible to read “No Closure” without wondering what could have been achieved, and what heartache avoided, if archdiocesan officials had listened to parishioners with the same empathy and desire for understanding that Seitz brought to his work.

 

Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, lives in Medford, Mass.

 

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