BOSTON – Pope Benedict XVI has rejected an appeal from a group of Boston-area parishioners who asked him to reverse a seven-year-old decision to close their churches, some of which have been occupied since in protest.
The pope's ruling was relayed in a Dec. 15 letter to Peter Borre, head of the Council of Parishes, which sent the last-ditch appeal in October. Borre said he received the letter at his home Monday.
The letter, written by a top Vatican diplomat, undersecretary of state Archbishop Fernando Filoni, said the pope was informed about the appeal and Filoni's office had carefully studied it.
"I regret, however, to inform you that His Holiness has decided not to accept your appeal," Filoni wrote.
Filoni added, "He has likewise asked me to assure you of a remembrance in his prayers in these difficult times."
The appeal to the pope came after the Vatican's highest court turned down in May the appeals of several churches closed by the Boston Archdiocese after it began a broad reconfiguration in 2004.
The appeal to Benedict decried the "veritable massacre" of parishes in the archdiocese, and argued a reversal of the closings would strengthen the church's mission of evangelization.
Borre said the appeal was "in the full sense of the word, a Hail Mary," and has said he doesn't expect the parishes to be restored as they were.
But he said Tuesday that he was heartened by Benedict's attention and expression of sympathy, which he said might help as his group works to reopen the closed churches as Catholic places of worship, instead of full parishes.
Benedict's response leaves his group "encouraged to press ahead to protect the churches in Boston from being sold as scrap," Borre said.
Terry Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, said he sees "no possible way that the (parishes) would ever reopen in any form."
"They are closed," he said. "The decisions that have come out of the Vatican have affirmed that."
The archdiocese was struggling with financial problems, declining membership and a priest shortage when it began its reconfiguration, which reduced the number of parishes from 357 to 291. Parishioners at several churches, though, refused to leave, saying their churches were healthy and being liquidated to pay the costs of settling with victims of the clergy sex abuse scandal — a charge the archdiocese has adamantly denied.
Five parishes remain in vigil, some around the clock.
In recent month, officials from the archdiocese have met with those sitting vigil to try to persuade them to end the protests. None have agreed to, and Borre has said some are considering forming breakaway groups.
The appeal to the pope also raised the worry that parishioners might be forcibly removed from the churches, as has happened in other parishes. But Borre said that after Benedict's expression of concern, "It strikes me it would be really unwise for the archbishop of Boston to call in the cops."
On Tuesday, Donilon repeated that the archdiocese is seeking a peaceful end to the vigils. "No one wants to drag people out; no one wants to take aggressive action," he said.
But he also reiterated that the vigils "are going to end at some point."
"We have 291 parishes that are open, that are welcoming, that are ready, willing and able to have the folks in vigil join them in celebrating their faith," Donilon said. "It's time."
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