In a report to a meeting of the archdiocesan priests council in May, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell said 408 archdiocesan priests under the age of 75 were active in the 413 parishes. About a quarter of the parishes are staffed by religious order priests, like the Salesians, who have run St. Thomas since 1979 and have decided to pull their priests out of St. Thomas.
According to minutes of the council meeting prepared by Cardinal Egan's secretary, the cardinal had wanted to reorganize the parishes last year but decided to tackle the archdiocese's finances first. He was also distracted by the sexual abuse scandal.
Bishop McDonnell told the priests that "It would be better to imagine the archdiocese as it is," but without imagining churches in their current locations. "Where would they be situated?"
In separate gatherings, Bishop McDonnell has told priests that based simply on numbers, Manhattan hypothetically needs only about a third of its 100 or so churches. Other factors come in to play, however, including proximity to worshipers, ethnic sensitivities and community and historical ties.
"You can never do this simply based on a mathematical formula," said Joseph Zwilling, the spokesman for the archdiocese.
But churches that are only blocks apart and may have served Irish or Slovak or Italian or German immigrants when New York's ethnic mix was different may be perceived as redundant by archdiocesan officials.
In the views of some, the effort is long overdue and partly brought on by the reluctance of Cardinal Egan's predecessor, Cardinal John O'Connor, to close churches. "The Catholic Church is not good at this," said the Rev. Walter F. Modrys, pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola on the Upper East Side. "The Catholic Church wants stability."Reflecting the sensitivity to public reaction against closings, priests at the meeting in May said as many people as possible, including parishioners, should be involved in the process.
"Yet, we must not forget that if we are not prudent about what we are to do," the minutes continued, "plans may be thwarted by small community groups who might, for example, have a building declared `landmarked' or demand that it be used for a particular purpose."