“Yes, we are selling the diocesan central offices – so be it,” the bishop told those gathered at Burlington’s Christ the King Church, where 19 former altar boys reported child sexual abuse. “We will relocate and we will continue. The people who we serve are so much more important than bricks and stone and mortar.”
But after years of dealing with a drop in its number of priests, Vermont’s Catholic Church today is facing a decline in its number of parishioners – and, because of an awkward photo now on the Internet, yet another wave of embarrassing publicity.
‘It is disturbing’
The 118,000-member diocese still dwarfs the state’s next most popular religions, the 14,500-member United Church of Christ, the 11,963-member United Methodist Church, the 8,131-member Episcopal Church and the 6,500-member American Baptist Church.
All of Vermont’s top faiths report declining involvement (a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ranks the state 45th for overall worship attendance, 43rd for frequency of prayer and last for belief in God). But Catholic numbers have dropped precipitously – 25 percent from the diocese’s 157,000 members in 1980 and 20 percent from its 149,000 members in 2005.
Five years ago, Matano was ordained on the same hopeful spring day that welcomed the naming of a new worldwide Catholic leader, Pope Benedict XVI. But upon taking office, the bishop discovered that Vermont priest numbers had decreased from 274 in 1975 to 81 in 2005, with the number expected to fall to 55 within a decade.
As a result, Matano unveiled a plan to close the state’s smallest, most rural parishes and share clergy at the rest of what were then 130 churches (now 80 parishes and 44 outposts manned by 62 active clergy).