The historic Archdiocese of Baltimore is embarking on a sweeping reassessment of how it operates in the city, a process officials say could lead to major changes in the number and type of parishes and even an overhaul of the cradle-to-grave parish system that anchored its city ministry for generations.
The first and oldest Catholic archdiocese in the United States has seen the number of worshippers on its Baltimore rolls sink to about 4,000. Churches built to seat 25,000 people on Sunday hosted about 4,500 per weekend as of 2019. That number has shrunk to 2,000 in the wake of the pandemic.
There are “no preconceived notions” as to what the diocese’s physical footprint in Baltimore will look like once the process of reviewing the 62 parishes in or near the city is complete, Archbishop William E. Lori said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. But it’s clear the initiative is historic in scale.
“I don’t think anything quite this comprehensive has ever been undertaken” in the archdiocese’s 233-year history, he said.
The purpose of the multiyear “Seek the City to Come” initiative will be to “strengthen the presence” of the church in Baltimore by taking “a good hard look at our footprint in the city to see how that footprint can be made more effective, how we can use the resources at our disposal to serve the needs of our people and to advance our mission of proclaiming the Gospel,” Lori said.
The archdiocese as a whole has more than half a million Catholics in an area that stretches from Garrett County in Western Maryland to Harford County. But numbers in Baltimore have plunged 98% from 200,000 in the 1950s.
It hasn’t helped that the city has lost population, including a drop from nearly 900,000 residents in the mid-1970s to about 576,000 today. Those who left included Catholics who moved to the suburbs as they built wealth.
“The majority of Catholics no longer live in the city,” said Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, the urban vicar for the archdiocese and the director of the initiative. “What we have now in Baltimore is church buildings, school buildings, convents and rectories that at one point were the backbone of Catholic life in the city and in the archdiocese beyond.
“We have the bones, so to speak. The structures are there, but we need to ask ourselves whether we’re doing the best we can in mission and ministry for the people of the city of Baltimore.”
Organizers of the initiative have been in communication with a handful of archdioceses that have launched similar efforts in recent years, including in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. While each faces unique challenges, Lori said, one mantra has emerged: “communicate, communicate, communicate” with everyone concerned, “and when you think you’ve communicated, communicate some more.”
Priests and lay and clerical leaders from all 62 parishes — 49 in the city and 13 in Baltimore County — have attended several preliminary meetings over the past six months. Church leaders have asked them to air potential concerns and pinpoint strengths on which they’d like to see the archdiocese build.
Lori and other organizers say they’re keenly aware that moving toward change on such a scale will spark anxiety — that many will worry their parish will lose its identity or be eliminated, and some might even suspect the initiative is an “excuse” to get rid of parishes that have been struggling.
The Rev. Joshua Laws does not believe that, but he concedes the necessity of taking a hard look at efficiency.
Laws is the senior pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, created in 2003 by combining three historic parishes — Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Mary, Star of the Sea.
Laws said overseeing maintenance of its 12 historic buildings — all but one more than 150 years old — is a facet of his ministry. But it takes time and energy from attending to the needs of parishioners and those who live in the surrounding neighborhoods.
He believes it’s likely the pastorate will lose at least one of its churches, a prospect he said would prove excruciating to longtime parishioners who view the buildings as anchors to their lives.
But the purpose of the initiative, he said, is to “pose the question, ‘Is this responsible? Is it the best we can do?’ Or do we need to make really hard decisions to let us better evolve, to free us up for mission, to be more present in more meaningful ways in Baltimore City?”
Organizers say “Seek the City to Come,” which draws its title from a passage in the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament, will unfold in three phases.
The first — a “listening” stage — gets underway this month. Diocesan leaders say they’ll spend up to a year visiting each parish, gathering information from leaders and parishioners on everything from its unique strengths and the demographics of the neighborhood to its financial outlook.
In the second — a “discernment” phase — church officials will conduct “a series of very intense conversations with groups representative of the whole community,” including interfaith organizations and neighborhood associations, “to understand what we have heard and to begin re-envisioning what our footprint might look like and how it might be made more effective.”
After that roughly five-month period, the archdiocese plans to begin a period of implementation sometime in 2024. They’ll translate what they’ve heard, discerned and decided into changes that could shape its work in Baltimore for decades to come.
The archdiocese also will host town hall meetings, Zoom sessions and conference calls, and launch a website and a tailored social-media presence to encourage anyone interested to take part.
Spokesmen for the archdiocese, and several participants at the early meetings, have said it’s impossible to know what changes will happen, but some mentioned ideas that have come into play in the other cities and are likely to receive serious consideration.
One involves reviewing how the diocese can make better use of its buildings. More than half the church buildings being reviewed were constructed before 1900. Many of the other buildings were designed long ago for purposes they no longer serve.
Others include reapportioning ministerial and social services from individual parishes and into geographical hubs, combining adjacent parishes, or moving away the long-standing model of organizing parishes around neighborhoods and focusing them instead on particular ministries, be they about education, spiritual formation, homelessness, unemployment or family services.
The Rev. Msgr. Richard Bozzelli, the longtime pastor of St. Bernardine Catholic Church in Edmondson and an attendee at the preliminary meetings, has seen four reconfiguration attempts within the archdiocese during his 28 years of ministry. For him, this one feels different.
“The earlier processes seemed to be more about tweaking the problems we face, but there wasn’t necessarily a great sense of how it all fits together,” he said. “I do think this time that there’s a willingness to be more comprehensive and creative in rethinking our stewardship in the city, in exploring how the church can truly match the needs of today.”
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At a time when fewer Americans are reporting any affiliation with organized religion, the Catholic Church has been hit particularly hard. Gallup, for example, reported an 18 percentage point drop between 2000 and 2020 in the number of Catholics who attended church weekly.
Amid the pandemic, the slide has been all but catastrophic in Baltimore. In 2020, officials say, the sudden appearance of the coronavirus didn’t just force them to close churches for months. Archdiocesan officials had to rethink basic operations — giving rise to everything from livestreamed services to a fresh look at how essential physical spaces are to worship and other ministries.
That, in turn, made it clear to church leadership that the time had arrived to embrace wholesale change, said Geri Byrd, the lead official on the project.
“I think God put it in our hearts to understand that the time is now,” she said.
Lori said one of the main purposes of the listening and discernment phases is to develop a sense of what parishes are doing well in what particular areas, then prayerfully determine how best to combine those strengths into more accessible benefits for those who live in the city.
And he and other leaders say they’ll work closely with anyone who might need to air their feelings, suggest ideas or even grieve as the archdiocese moves toward what it hopes will be a city whose ministry is better and more responsive than ever.
“It’s about meeting our brothers and sisters and journeying together,” Lewandowski said.