Hard Realities Require St Anthony’s Community to Consider Positives of Shrine Designation

January 20, 2018
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By Bob Marra

I might hold a minority opinion among my fellow Parishioners, but I am optimistic that the Archdiocese proposal to transform St. Anthony’s from a Territorial Parish to a Shrine may offer the best long-term solution to the obstacles that imperil St. Anthony’s future.

At their January 9 meeting with about 150 St. Anthony’s parishioners, Archdiocese representatives Bishop Mark O’Connell and Father Paul Soper were explicit that St. Anthony’s cannot continue as a single ‘stand-alone’ parish.  They delivered hard statistical truth:  St. Anthony’s meets neither attendance nor offertory revenue requirements of 1,600 Mass attendees per week and $500,000 in offertory per year to merit consideration as a stand-alone parish.

This was difficult for people in attendance to accept.

After all, they continue to come to Mass and support the Parish. But those people are not the source of the problem; the problem exists because there are not enough of them.

While acknowledging that St. Anthony’s is financially stable, Bishop O’Connell and Father Soper pointed out that too much of St. Anthony’s revenue depends on its weekly Bingo and Flea Market. Bingo revenue, it is feared, will likely to diminish when the Wynn Casino opens in Everett next year. The Flea Market, while thriving, relies on the herculean efforts of only a small cadre of people.

While activities such as Bingo and a Flea Market surely can be important components of a church’s financial well-being, they are dubious pillars.  Moreover, neither depicts faith-based support.

Losing its status as a “territorial” parish will change St. Anthony’s in many respects. While regularly weekly Mass will continue, Faith Formation for the youth of St. Anthony’s eventually would become the province of Revere’s ‘territorial’ Parish, not St. Anthony’s Shrine. Current St. Anthony’s organizations such as its Holy Name Society and Sodality would end.  Marriage preparation would no longer be offered. Services to which the St. Anthony’s parish community has become accustomed, such as ‘sick visits,’ blessing of homes, and bereavement blessings at wakes, also likely would end.

The elimination of these familiar connections to the Church understandably triggers fervent emotion among those who consider St. Anthony’s Parish an integral part of their family history and of their lives.

But reality is a cold reminder that the church that we know and love is different than the strong and crowded parish we remember. Truth be told, the mainstays that once infused St. Anthony’s with energy have withered over the years. A simple example:  I joined the church’s Holy Name Society some 30 years ago, when monthly meetings routinely drew about 140 men who represented leaders among the parish community and bolstered the Church both financially and with active participation. Over the years, as the Parish community aged and so many of those men passed away, the group dwindled to its current membership of barely 25, most over 60 years old.  While those of us who remain are steadfast in our commitment to St. Anthony’s, we lack the vitality to accomplish all that a much larger and vigorous group could in years past.

The Holy Name Society example is but one symptom of decline. Again, reality delivers a bracing admonition. While the potential loss of Faith Formation instigated stanch protest among the dedicated people who attended the January 9 meeting, those who voiced dissent find themselves outnumbered by those to whom Faith Formation is an inconvenience of adolescence. As Father Soper commented, too many of the young people who progress through Faith Formation—whether at St. Anthony’s or elsewhere—do not remain involved in a Parish following their Confirmation. Indeed, Confirmation has become tagged derisively as “the Sacrament of Exit.” Jesting aside, studies have revealed repeatedly, Father Soper said, that Millennials are far less likely than previous generations to commit to a single Parish, if they remain active in a church at all. This fact portends a bleak future for any parish.

Compounding the problem, many parents who send their children to Faith Formation are themselves inactive Catholics. Bishop O’Connell bemoaned the all-too-common site of parents dropping of their charges for Sunday Mass, leaving, and then returning a couple hours later to pick them up. He said that he personally knows only a fraction of the parents of the children who participate in Faith Formation at St. Theresa’s in North Reading, where he is Pastor. This type of exemplar does little to foster new growth in any community, and similarly portends a bleak future for a parish.

In a larger sense, The Church, in general, is certainly partly to blame for the exodus of parishioners. The steady decline in church attendance began well before the appalling revelation of disgraceful scandal no doubt accelerated it.   No matter, the end result:   People left the church in large number, for whatever reason, leaving simply too few people to sustain the church in which we grew up.

There’s an even more fundamental reason for the changes we see in churches everywhere: the ever-growing scarcity of priests.

The Archdiocese lacks the numbers of priests needed to staff its churches.  Over the years, St. Anthony’s has been the fortunate beneficiary of visiting priests through a partnership with an Archdiocese in India that was arranged by former St. Anthony’s Pastor Father Michael Guarino. Since Father Mike retired due to health reasons in 2011, the Archdiocese has supplied only one Archdiocesan priest, St. Anthony’s Pastor Father George Butera, who has been supported by visiting priests. Father George has postponed his own retirement twice to navigate St. Anthony’s through these uncertain times. He stretched his most recent target date, June of this year, to June of 2019, by when St. Anthony’s future will be determined.

It’s a changing world. There are drastically fewer priests, and drastically fewer people go to Mass and support St. Anthony’s. St. Anthony’s likely will not survive within the limitations of the territorial model.

That said, confusion abounds within the St. Anthony’s Parish community about the reasons St. Anthony’s cannot be part of a Collaborative, either with Revere’s remaining two churches (Immaculate Conception and St. Mary’s) or with a parish from a neighboring community. The Collaborative model is the Archdiocese ongoing effort to consolidate multiple geographically contiguous churches under the stewardship of a single Pastor as an alternative to closing more churches. The initial Collaborative concept, Father Soper explained, combined three churches. It quickly became obvious, however, that the physical and administrative demands of managing three separate facilities rendered the three-parish collaborative an unworkable idea. Reducing a Revere Collaborative to two parishes elicited the question “which two?” and spawned the idea of turning St. Anthony’s into a Shrine. .

The St. Anthony’s community, however, is roiling in misunderstanding, or misinformation, about what was said on January 9. Bishop O’Connell and Father Soper were adamant that Sunday Masses would continue, weddings and baptism and funerals would still be held at St. Anthony’s, and a St. Anthony’s Shrine could be a center of extensive activities such as devotions, festivals, and a guest speaker series.

First Communion or Confirmations might still occur, but only with the approval of the Pastor of the Revere territory. Yes, St. Anthony’s would be a different place than it is now, run by an Order of priests yet to be determined. But its remarkable edifice and gorgeous setting would remain a place of worship for all.

Change always brings concern and worry, but I think back to about 18 years ago.  The Archdiocese of Boston was poised to close more than 60 churches in the region. St. Anthony’s was about to lose its designation as an “Italian National Parish” and was slated to be suppressed into the current territorial Parish with St. Teresa’s and St. John Vianney. People were angry and resistant. The heartbroken devoted from St. Teresa and St. John Vianney were literally losing their churches and being uprooted, and St. Anthony’s was taking on a new and different personality. Yet, that change worked out wonderfully. I’ve always believed that the change saved St. Anthony’s 18 years ago.

Unfortunately change seems necessary to save St. Anthony’s once again.

Today, the Archdiocese does not have the resources to operate a single Parish of St. Anthony’s size. It’s ironic that the very elements that make St. Anthony’s such a magnificent church—its size, its architecture—are in many ways the elements that make it so daunting to maintain.

The concept of a Shrine, which hopefully will draw its life from a much larger population and become a center of devotion for people from everywhere, may be the singular solution.  There are many questions that remain to be answered, but circumstances behoove the St. Anthony’s community to reflect on the current and future reality.

I, for one, am receptive to the idea of St. Anthony’s as a Shrine.

Bob Marra, a lifelong parishioner at St. Anthony’s, a Lector and Extraordinary Minister

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