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Published: Thursday, 9/16/2004

The shrinking church

REALITY can be harsh, and it's hitting Catholics pretty hard these days. Population shifts and a decreasing number of priests mean that the Toledo Catholic Diocese must close or realign 20 to 30 of its 157 parishes, and it won't be easy for any of the members of the targeted parishes.

For many Catholics, their parishes frame some of life's most important memories: babies' baptisms, first communions, weddings, and funerals.

But the sad reality is that the church can no longer support all the parishes it now has. It will be a somber day tomorrow when Bishop Leonard Blair reveals a six-member committee's recommendations on which parishes the 19-county diocese should close or combine. Bishop Blair will make a final decision next March, and it will become effective in July.

The Toledo diocese isn't alone in this burdensome task. Many others nationally, and in Canada, are facing the same difficult choices.

Naturally, many Catholics blame the sexual abuse scandal, which has affected parish membership and finances. But a shortage of priests, which has been worsening for decades, gets most of the blame.

At the same time, St. Anthony Parish in the central city, whose 238-foot steeple can be seen from many parts of the city, says its membership is growing. The president of the parish pastoral says there are about 260 members, and the parish bustles with activities every weekend.

The late Bishop James Hoffman recognized this issue years ago. In 1994, he established a pastoral planning office and worked to avoid closing parishes. Yet he also understood that 157 parishes couldn't be maintained with the decline in the number of priests.

The future doesn't seem too bright, either. There were 194 priests in the diocese in July, 2003, with 114 of them assigned to parishes. The diocese estimates that by 2007 there will be about 178 priests, with 120 active and 98 of them assigned to parishes. From there, the projections get worse.

Coping with these changes will be difficult for all area Catholics, and hardest of all for those whose parishes will be closed. They'll need a generous helping of what the church cannot cut back on: faith.

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