Catholics eye Cleveland closures for national precedent

March 21, 2012

c. 2012 Religion News Service
CLEVELAND (RNS) Before a recent prayer service in a shuttered Catholic
church in Holyoke, Mass., parishioner Victor Anop stood before 120 people and
made an urgent announcement:
"The Vatican has ordered the bishop of Cleveland to reopen 13 closed
churches."

"Everybody broke into applause," Anop said in a telephone interview.
"People are still talking about it. What happened in Cleveland brings us hope."

Catholics fighting church closings across the U.S. are keeping their eyes
on the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland, where Bishop Richard Lennon was
overruled by the Vatican for not properly following church law and procedures on
closing churches.

Copies of the decrees are circulating throughout the country and even in
Canada. Anop and other parishioners of the closed Mater Dolorosa Catholic
Church have been holding around-the-clock vigils inside their century-old
sanctuary ever since their bishop ordered it closed last June.

In July, the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, the same panel that
ordered the reopening of Cleveland's churches, said Mater Dolorosa should
stay closed. But the Holyoke squatters appealed to the Vatican's supreme court
and are awaiting a ruling.

Meanwhile, the news from Cleveland has reinvigorated their fight, Anop
said. "Cleveland has led the way," he said. "And now the people of Cleveland
need to keep working to get those churches open right away."

Phillip Penna, who is trying to reopen his church, Corpus Christi in North
Bay, Ontario, about four hours north of Toronto, has read a couple of the
Cleveland decrees.

"We think our bishop made similar errors," said Penna. "What's happening
in Cleveland is monumental. It's really emboldened us. We're ready to go."

Many believe Rome is unhappy with U.S. bishops closing hundreds of churches
over the last decade -- especially century-old structures that are
architectural gems and elaborately appointed with priceless art. Many were old
ethnic churches in inner-city neighborhoods.

"I'm wondering if Rome is saying, 'Enough is enough,'" said Michael
Dunnigan, a canon lawyer at the St. Joseph Foundation, a parishioners advocacy
group in San Antonio.

"I'm no mind reader," he said, "but I imagine that Vatican officials
looking at America must wonder to themselves: 'How can the bishops of such a
wealthy country close so many churches, abandon their great cities and exile
to the suburbs the great Catholic witness in both flesh and stone?'"

Dunnigan, who has been representing parishioners for 14 years, said
overturning a bishop's closing of a church was unheard of.

"We've been in the wilderness for ages with cases like this," he said.
"It's been almost impossible to win, to prevail against a bishop. But now
there's hope."

The 13 Cleveland churches -- out of 50 that Lennon closed between 2009 and
2010 in a finance-driven downsizing -- had appealed to the Congregation
for the Clergy, saying they were self-sustaining parishes that should not be
closed.

While the cases were under appeal, the diocese was prohibited from selling
the properties, so they have been sitting empty and padlocked. Word got out
March 7 that the Congregation ruled in favor of all 13 parishes.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw the news," said Joe Fuisz, a parishioner
fighting to reopen St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pa. "I
thought, 'No, the press must be mistaken.'

"Up until now, we had no real success stories to look to. Now, going
forward, people are looking to Cleveland."

Lennon has 60 days to appeal the reversals of his closing orders; the
bishop said in a statement that his advisers were reviewing the rulings.

Peter Borre, a Boston activist who represents 24 parishioner groups in 11
dioceses throughout the country, said Lennon erred both in procedure and
substance of church law when he "suppressed" parishes -- which means he
dissolved them -- and shuttered the church buildings.

"This is a tectonic shift in Vatican parish policy," said Borre. "This is
not just idiosyncrasies of a few odd cases here and there."