CHICAGO — The Archdiocese of Chicago could close as many as 100 parishes over the next dozen years under a comprehensive review announced by Archbishop Blase Cupich.
Pointing to aging infrastructure and a looming priest shortage, Cupich said the nation’s third largest archdiocese risks “spreading our resources too thinly” if it fails “to face these realities” by taking steps to plan for its future.
In a column for the Catholic New World Friday, Cupich said the archdiocese is launching a months-long review process that will “require a good deal of prayer and humility, hard work, tough choices and new sacrifices.” He said to expect that some of the archdiocese’s 351 parishes would close as a result.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Cupich announced the review process to priests at a series of meetings held over the past few weeks. He warned them that financial and personnel projections through 2030 make the status quo unsustainable.
Priests who attended the meetings told the Tribune that as many as 100 parishes could close in the next 14 years, when only 240 priests are estimated to be available for parish ministry.
About 10 new priests are ordained each year, fewer than the number of priests who retire annually. The archdiocese’s website says there are more than 700 priests today, though that figure includes priests who are retired or working in administrative roles.
In his column for the Catholic New World, Cupich laid out seven priorities that he said define sustainable parishes, offering something of a blueprint for how parishes will be evaluated in coming months. They include evangelization, service, and stewardship of resources.
A strong parish, Cupich wrote, brings “people to Christ” and allows parishioners to “receive nourishment through prayer and worship.”
In addition, a parish should be “a beacon of faith and an advocate for justice and peace, reaching out in love to all who are in need, on the margin of society, or who live in fear and loneliness.”
And when it comes to resources, a vibrant parish “fosters a culture of stewardship” and “thrives under the visionary leadership of the pastor, who works in collaboration with his associates, staff, and the laity to ensure that the parish’s mission can fully flourish as a result of proper administration.”
When Cupich was installed as archbishop in November 2014, he inherited an institution in decline. In 2012, for example, the archdiocese ran a $42 million deficit, and the number of Catholic baptisms and weddings in the archdiocese had fallen each year since 2000. Last month, the archdiocese announced that at least three Catholic schools would close.
The archdiocese owns more than 2,700 buildings, many of which need significant repair. In recent years, it has undertaken efforts to modernize buildings with new plumbing, solar panels, and energy-efficient light bulbs in order to save money on energy costs, which run into the millions each year.
The last major round of closures in the archdiocese came in 1990, when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin closed or merged 40 parishes, slashing the archdiocese’s budget by more than $13 million per year. Bernardin’s plan caught many Catholics off-guard, causing tumult in the archdiocese and criticized as overly authoritative.
Cupich’s announcement seeks to allay fears that parishioners and priests won’t have an input in the archdiocese’s plan, which could take years to formulate. Cupich wrote in his column that the effort aims to lay the foundation for a solid future in the archdiocese.
“By having the boldness to leave behind familiar ways of doing things, we can seize this season as one that is not simply of loss, but rather of renewal,” he wrote. “This is the dream God is calling us to, and that will sustain and unite us.”
Chicago is hardly alone in facing a priest shortage and dwindling financial resources, as the center of US Catholicism shifts from the Irish, German, and Italian parishes of the Midwest and Northeast to the increasingly Hispanic church found in the South and West.
The Archdiocese of Boston, for example, launched a years-long review process in 2012 in order to face decreased resources, including priests. The result was the creation of several “parish collaboratives,” which include multiple churches sharing one priest. The project is currently in its final phase.
In 2014, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would consolidate 112 of its 368 parishes into 55.
And in Philadelphia, where Pope Francis celebrated a public Mass in September that attracted close to 1 million worshippers, dozens of parishes have been merged or closed since 2011.
According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest fell 4 percent between 1965 and 2015, with the percentage rising by about the same amount in the South and West. But it’s no sure bet that Hispanic Catholics can make up for the decline, as the share of US Hispanics who identify as Catholic has fallen more than 10 percentage points since 2010.
Cupich is urging Chicago Catholics not to give into despair at the challenges ahead, but to see them as an opportunity for renewal.
“Just as our ancestors responded in faith to their dreams and built the church we have today, it is our time to dream big and to take up this work,” he wrote.