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Seattle Archdiocese announces Catholic parishes will consolidate

Virus Outbreak Washington Catholic Church Seattle
Elaine Thompson
FILE - Kia Green lights a candle at St. James Cathedral, the Cathedral for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, in an otherwise nearly empty sanctuary where hours have been limited because of the coronavirus outbreak Saturday, March 28, 2020, in Seattle.

Hundreds of parishioners filed into St. Luke’s Catholic Church in Shoreline, Wash. on Sunday to pray and sing.

But at this Mass many heard an unexpected message. A video featuring church leaders from the Archdiocese of Seattle announced that parishes all around the region would be consolidating due to the priest shortage, fewer people going to church, and other factors.

“We’re living in a time that’s different from the past. We now have declining Mass attendance, declining participation in the sacraments, and we have churches that were built for many more people than those who are attending Mass,” said Caitlin Moulding, chief operations officer for the Archdiocese of Seattle, at the beginning of the video message played at churches all around Western Washington over the weekend.

Specifically, the Archdiocese of Seattle said that in addition to dwindling Mass attendance, from 2010 to 2019 baptisms declined 30%, and weddings nearly 19%. So starting next year – after receiving input from the laity – two or more parishes will combine into what the Archdiocese of Seattle is calling "families." These "families" will be led by one priest.

The archdiocese, which serves more than one million Catholics in Western Washington, said the new structure is meant to give priests more time for pastoral care and free up resources for parishes who might want a more active youth ministry or who might want to focus on other priorities.

It’s a model that’s been used in other parts of the country, and the archdiocese consulted the firm Partners Edge, which has helped other dioceses make similar transitions.

Although Archbishop Paul D. Etienne will make announcements regarding the final parish family structure starting next year, church leaders said they don’t expect the process of forming the new families to be completed until 2027. Church leaders also said they want parishioners to have input on any potential church and Catholic school closings.

Reactions to the announcement varied.

Dawn Thompson, has been attending St. Luke’s Catholic Church since 2014, when she was confirmed.

“I think it's a really great idea,” she said of the plan to consolidate parishes, adding that she did not think this particular church had experienced a downward trend in attendance.

LeAna Proffitt, who has been attending St. Luke’s for the last 15 years, was a little more cautious but said she hopes the plan allows for the parishes that come together as a family to grow and “hopefully that will foster their faith as well as a sense of community.”

Proffitt added that it will be up to people like her to make new members of a parish family feel at home.

“If you've been in a parish for a long time, and you have new members that come in, sometimes they don't always feel welcome because they're not being acknowledged,” she said.

Colleen Kinerk is a lifelong Catholic and activist within the church.

“I can say that my cell phone and laptop have exploded with reactions from very, very many local residents,” she said of feedback she’s been getting about the archdiocese’s announcement.

She said one obvious solution to the shortage of priests that the archdiocese is ignoring is allowing more people, such as women and those who are married, to help lead parishes.

“What are they doing? You know, downsizing so that they can cling to unnecessary, you know, anachronistic views of what the priesthood should be,” she said.

Kinerk said she’s also concerned some of the more diverse parishes located in lower income areas will be more likely to close than others.

Heal Our Church, a group of activists pushing for reform in the Catholic Church with regard to the sexual abuse crisis and other issues, also released a statement on the archdiocese’s pastoral plan.

The group said the archbishop “needs to go back to the drawing board to deal with the priest shortage and any legitimate financial issues."

The statement continues: "But he has to first be willing to lead consistent with the New Testament model. In other words, with openness; with honesty and in true collaboration with the laity. If he can’t or won’t, he should admit it. There is a well known phrase: ‘What would Jesus do?’ NOT THIS.”

For its part, the archdiocese said it chose this process because it wants to grant parishes and individual members the authority and freedom to help determine the future of the church.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. Reach her at
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