Catholic parishioners reacted with hope and concern Sunday to Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's candid pastoral letter warning that 2012 could bring school and parish closings and harsh media coverage of the sex-abuse scandal.
"It was very pastoral and very caring and not a whitewash," said Anne Visco, who heard the letter read at the 8 a.m. Mass at Christ the King in the Northeast. "He was not glossing over or dancing on one foot and then the other."
Francis Scallatino, a trumpet player who heard the letter at the 10 a.m. Mass at Christ the King, said, "The history of the church is to sweep these priests under the rug, but it doesn't sound like this guy is going do that."
The tone of Chaput's letter, which was read by priests and distributed through church bulletins, was somber and direct. It warned the region's 1.5 million Catholics that next year could lead to painful economic decisions related to restructuring the archdiocese's operational budgets.
The first business matter will involve the recommendations of a school study panel appointed a year ago by Chaput's predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali. Archdiocesan schools were at a crossroads, Rigali said then, because of changing demographics.
The panel, composed mostly of business leaders and educators, was charged with crafting a plan "to assure the sustainability of Catholic education" that takes into account demographics and financing. The archdiocesan school system educates 49,000 youngsters at 156 parish schools and 16,000 students at 17 high schools.
There were 167 parish schools when Rigali appointed the panel a year ago, and 211 a decade ago. In 1965, a record 208,000 students attended Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
"I hope they don't close any churches or schools. I hope they don't close this church, because it's my life," Carmella Seifert said as she left after the 7:30 a.m. Mass at St. Ann parish in Bristol Borough, Bucks County.
Said Anthony Freet, an 84-year-old usher at St. Ann, "We're trying to figure out how to get younger people here."
Chaput's letter, addressed to "Dear friends in Christ," was among the first direct communications to the Catholic faithful from the new archbishop, who succeeded Rigali in September as head of the archdiocese. Previously, Chaput was archbishop of Denver, which has about 400,000 Catholics.
Chaput leads the Philadelphia-area church at a time of new questions over the handling of priests accused of molesting children. A grand jury report in February led to the suspension of 27 archdiocesan priests who have unresolved misconduct accusations.
The grand jury report and priest suspensions have angered parishioners and dismayed Catholic clergy, who say they are stigmatized by the scandal. Chaput said the overwhelming majority of priests did nothing wrong.
"Since arriving in September, I have pressed for a rapid resolution of the cases of those priests placed on administrative leave earlier this year," Chaput wrote, continuing, "The first months of 2012 will finally see those cases concluded."
Chaput also wrote that the commission on Catholic schools would release its report to him in January. "It will likely counsel that some, and perhaps many, schools must close or combine," he wrote.
Though the clergy sex-abuse scandal has damaged the Roman Catholic Church, Chaput has said anxiety about parish school closings - not abuse - had been the biggest issue for Philadelphia-area parishioners.
After dealing with the schools, the archdiocese will look at other financial issues, including "the number and location of our parishes."
At St. Ann, the Rev. Thomas A. Morris said the church was an important part of the community. For many parishioners, he said, "this is where they want to be buried. This is where they were married."
At Christ the King, the Rev. Michael Speziale read Chaput's letter to the congregation at the 10 a.m. Mass and then constructed a homily with the theme "joyful hope" for the church.
Among the priests on leave and awaiting a decision is Msgr. John A. Close, 67, accused by a Delaware man of sexually assaulting him in 1969 when he was an altar boy and Close was a young priest at Christ the King. Close denies the charges.
"Something obviously has to be fixed," said Glenn Carraccio, a lifelong member of Christ the King. "There are some priests that are taking a bad rap because of what has gone on, but they obviously need to clean up the situation. . . . I can't see the church going on without a resolution."