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Changes ahead in 2016, Cupich tells priests

Archbiship Blase Cupich met with priests on Tuesday. | Sun-Times file photo

Archbishop Blase Cupich met with priests Tuesday to discuss structural changes to the Archdiocese of Chicago in the coming year triggered by a systemwide study conducted this summer, but he declined to disclose publicly what those changes would entail.

The meeting, held at the Drury Lane Theatre & Conference Center in west suburban Oakbrook Terrace, included about 600 priests from archdiocesan parishes throughout the city and suburbs sparked speculation about potential parish closures.

But the archdiocese maintained that no closings have been identified for the coming year beyond two that are in the process of closing: St. Mary Magdalene on the Southwest Side and St. Isidore the Farmer in Blue Island.

The internal study looked at trends such as pastor availability, mission vitality, operating viability, and capital needs, along with how factors such as population patterns, ethnicity shifts, Catholicity shifts, and decline in Mass attendance have affected many of its parishes, officials said.

“Many changes have occurred since the parish system was created decades ago. The Archdiocese faces a landscape with fewer priests available to pastor parishes into the future, challenges . . . due to resources spread too thinly, financial challenges in some parishes and significant capital needs in some parishes,” archdiocese officials said in a statement. “The Archdiocese is now beginning to assess the implications of these changes.”

Officials would not say which parishes have been most affected by these shifts, but specifically noted the drop in Mass attendance has been systemwide.

The archdiocese also declined to make public the document and took steps to keep it secret by collecting the detailed information given to the priests at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.

“Preliminary data and perspectives were shared yesterday as working materials for yesterday’s meeting only,” an archdiocese spokeswoman said Wednesday.

For years, the archdiocese has carried a deficit on its billion-dollar-plus operating budget covering parishes, schools and ministries. Last December, officials projected it could close that deficit by 2016 without impacting its mission. The archdiocese had projected a $6 million deficit this year, after a projected $16 million deficit last year. In 2013, it operated at a $30 million deficit; in 2012, $40 million.

“The Archdiocese is targeting a break-even budget, on an ongoing operations basis, for fiscal year 2016,” the spokeswoman reaffirmed Wednesday.

Those shifts over the past 20 years have decreased its parishes from 446 in 1985 to 353 last year. The number of diocesan priests has dropped from over 1,200 in 1985 to 771 in 2014. Of those, only 464 were active in parish work, with nearly 200 listed as retired or sick.

The spokeswoman said the archdiocese expects to begin local planning with priests, lay parish leadership and other stakeholders in mid-2016. The plan will be carried out in phases over the next several years. It will reflect the kind of process that several parish clusters have already undergone, including one now underway for several churches in the Pilsen neighborhood.

“This [meeting] is just the beginning of a long process to determine how to serve the pastoral needs of the Archdiocese and strengthen parish vitality for the long-term future,” Cupich said in a statement issued by the archdiocese. “As the process moves forward, I am committed to a process that involves discipline, wide consultation and community involvement.”