In his first public statements since unveiling the largest reorganization of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in its history, Archbishop John Nienstedt said Monday he's sympathetic to parishioners whose churches are closing, but changes are needed to make the archdiocese efficient enough to fulfill its mission.

"I understand very well people becoming very attached to their churches because for years we've told them they should support their church ... to be an active member of their church," Nienstedt said. "And now we're telling them something different."

The reorganization is a response to tighter budgets, shifting demographics and a projected shortage of priests. The archdiocese has 213 parishes and close to 800,000 parishioners -- the largest religious denomination in the Twin Cities.

"I think it's important for us to stand back and say there's a big picture," he added. "And the big picture is our sustainability, our viability, our success as a church. We realized early on in this process that with the demographics shifting, with the age of our parish buildings, we weren't utilizing our resources to the extent that we could, to really be behind the mission of the church."

This past weekend the archdiocese unveiled a plan in which 21 parishes will close their buildings and be merged into 14 receiving parishes. At the end of the process, expected to take several years, the archdiocese will have a total of 192 remaining parishes instead of the current 213. In addition, 33 parishes will join in new "clusters," in which one pastor will lead two or more parishes.

Archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath said Monday a "very small number" of churches slated to merge intend to appeal the plan. An appeal must include a petition to the archbishop outlining why the decision should be changed.

"We don't have a firm handle yet on how many have actually appealed," McGrath said. "But there isn't any animosity there."

Archdiocesan officials say they're also studying the viability of the 98 schools in the archdiocese, some of which may also close. The archdiocese employs close to 3,800 people.

Nienstedt's political motives were questioned after the archdiocese mailed DVDs opposing same-sex marriage to area Catholics a month ago. Nienstedt said at no time in the reorganization did the archdiocese try to close any parishes perceived as too "liberal."

"None of the decisions were politically motivated in the sense that we're dealing with ideologies. We're dealing with hard facts," he said.

"Nobody, including myself, enjoys closing down a parish or school because of the life those institutions give. But at the same time ... we know something has to be done because we're bogged down with so many buildings that are taking up our time and our efforts and our finances. In order to be the church we're called to be, we have to move forward with that."

Rose French • 612-673-4352