February 3, 2005
The great urban centers of the United States are unique in the world. While Rome, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Warsaw and St. Petersburg remain with the passage of time quite stable as regards the character of their various neighborhoods, New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit and all of our nation’s large population centers are ever in flux. The area of Rome that is known as the Prati is much the same as it was in the 1920s. Knightsbridge in London is little different from the handsome community that emerged at the turn of the last century. And the Seizieme of Paris is still the collection of classic homes and elegant churches that it came to be with the end of the French Revolution.
In the United States, however, our principal cities, their suburbs, and even their outlying communities are constantly churning; and nowhere is this more apparent than in Greater New York. When I first came to live here in 1985, Chelsea in Manhattan was a poorly maintained and little sought-after community. Just a few weeks ago it was reported in a number of our local newspapers that a rather ordinary apartment on one of its side streets might be expected to sell for about $1 million. Likewise, Highbridge in the Bronx was, I am told, a solid, middle-class sector of the city throughout the first half of the 1900’s. Today it is a distressed neighborhood struggling nobly to recapture the well-being of former times.
Examples of such transformations are numerous, and one often hears them described in conversations with native New Yorkers. "I remember such-and-such a place when I was young," they will tell us. "It was a wonderful neighborhood filled with people of such-and-such backgrounds. How it changed so completely I do not know. But this much is sure: Nothing is as it was."
The economic and sociological reasons for this constant and seemingly unavoidable fluctuation in the character of the various neighborhoods of our cities and their environs are complicated and widely disputed. Hence, I will not try to uncover them here. Rather, I would wish to focus on the repercussions of all of this change on the Church as it strives to serve the People of God of the Archdiocese of New York wisely and fairly.
An illustration will perhaps clarify the situation. In Lower Manhattan, we have a long-established parish with a large church, an ample rectory, and around 160 registered parishioners, while in Dutchess County up north, we have a rather recently established parish with a modest church, a crowded rectory, and over 3,500 registered families – not parishioners, families!
As neighborhoods and communities changed either because of their becoming commercialized or because of the arrival of newcomers in large numbers, the Church continued to operate and subsidize what was in place. The result was and is an altogether unsatisfactory distribution of facilities, resources and personnel from one end of the archdiocese to the other.
All of this calls for more than a modest change in the way we conduct our affairs, even though nothing is so unappealing to the human spirit as change. We like things to remain as they are, and we do our best to keep them that way even when we know deep down that new arrangements are needed. At a certain point, however, realists that we are, we accept what is clear and inescapable, we roll up our sleeves, and we adjust – or, as the expression goes – we "realign."
To handle this with the greatest of care for the interests and feelings of all involved and with firm commitment not to allow criticism or complaints to veer us away from what we know we have to do, consultations have begun with the vicars of our 19 archdiocesan vicariates, and a number of pastors from each vicariate as well, to hear from them what they believe needs to be done and how they would have us proceed.
The next step is for the vicars to meet with all of the clergy in their vicariates to work out with them recommendations regarding parishes, schools, and charitable institutions and programs in their communities. These will then be shared with a committee of staff persons at the central offices of the archdiocese who will put them in order and refer them to an archdiocese-wide committee of laity and clergy for in-depth consideration. This done, after preliminary proposals for all sectors of all vicariates have been brought to the attention of the local clergy, they will be presented to local committees drawn from parish councils, parish school boards, parish finance councils, and such to receive from them recommendations and refinements, in order to adjust what clearly needs to be adjusted.
When all of this has been accomplished, confident that we have consulted widely and well and trusting in the grace and guidance of the Lord, we will move ahead.
The entire enterprise will be directed by His Excellency, The Most Reverend Dennis J. Sullivan, one of the two vicars general of the archdiocese. He is a seasoned pastor and warmly admired by his brother priests. His task is daunting, but I have no doubt that he will carry it out with wisdom, courage and the heart of a true shepherd of souls.
Nor will he be alone in this undertaking. I have thinned out my calendar from January through September so as to be at his beck and call at every step along the way. For in my judgment, this is a matter of crucial importance for the archdiocese at this point in its history. We need to make sure that we are using our resources intelligently and equitably, with churches, schools, and charitable and catechetical institutions where they are most needed and with priests, deacons, religious and lay staff members where the faithful are now, not where they were decades or even generations ago.
Where we find huge churches with few parishioners, where we find schools that will educate more effectively when joined to nearby schools, where we find charitable and healthcare programs and agencies that are little used, we will make the adjustments and accommodations that are required and direct assets and personnel to areas where they are most needed. In a word, we will "realign."
None of us who have been intimately involved in thinking about this matter over the past year fail to realize that there very likely will be moments of controversy and upset as we go forward. As noted above, change is seldom a welcome visitor. All the same, I am convinced that with patience and openness we will be able to explain what is at issue and gain support for our efforts from the vast majority of the well over two and one-half million Catholics that make up that community of faith which is the Archdiocese of New York. For this is the Lord’s work, and He will be ever at our side as we carefully and prayerfully do it.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York