As the number of Catholic priests in the United States declines and the ranks of Catholics increase, dioceses across the country are trying to do more with less. Many times that leads to the closing of parishes.
But some Catholic groups are making a push to find alternatives so that church doors will remain open.
"Closing the parish community should be the absolutely last resort," said Sister Christine Schenk, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph religious order and the executive director of the Catholic reform group FutureChurch.
She will speak Wednesday night at the monthly meeting of United Parishes in Kansas, Ohio.
She acknowledges that the numbers are cause for concern: There are 18,000 active diocesan priests in the United States today, and if present rates of ordination, retirement, and death continue there will be 11,500 priests 20 years from now.
Meanwhile, the number of Catholics in the United States has been rising from 45 million in 1965 to more than 63 million today.
While the U.S. Catholic Church is clearly facing a major challenge over the shortage of priests, Sister Schenk said in a recent interview that there are viable options bishops should consider.
"We don't think it's a good idea to shrink active, vibrant parishes to fit the number of priests," she said. "What we're recommending instead is that we keep parishes open with parish life coordinators."
She said there are 550 parishes in the United States that are led by parish life coordinators.
"They can do the administrating, and then priests come in for sacramental leadership," she said. "This is permitted under Canon Law. It is not an unknown. And the experience, by and large, has been quite positive."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops's National Pastoral Life Center said that lay ecclesial ministers are helping to meet the needs of parishioners when there are fewer priests, "taking on a wide array of pastoral responsibilities that advance parish life."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Pastoral Life Center said lay ecclesial ministers are helping to meet the needs of parishioners when there are fewer priests, "taking on a wide array of pastoral responsibilities that advance parish life."
More than 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers are working at least 20 hours per week in paid positions in American parishes, the conference reports.
Despite the increasing role of lay ecclesial ministers, the number of parishes in the United States has been dropping as diocesan bishops order closures and mergers, generally citing the lack of available priests.
In Toledo, Bishop Leonard Blair closed 17 parishes and merged 16 others into six new parishes in 2005. In May, Bishop Blair announced that three parishes in Paulding County will be merged into one.
Since 2005, the number of parishes in the 19-county Toledo diocese has been reduced from 157 to 131.
United Parishes, the nonprofit group that invited Sister Christine to speak, was formed by members of closed parishes in the Toledo diocese.
"There are 40 dioceses actively engaged in reconfiguring or downsizing parishes," Sister Christine said. "Camden [N.J.] just went from 124 to 65 parishes. Allentown [Pa.] is closing around 40 or 50. Buffalo is closing 50 parishes. Cleveland is projecting as many as 48 parishes will close. The sad part is that even with all this downsizing, in another 10 years we could be looking at another round of closings, considering the demographics."
In its mission statement, the Cleveland-based FutureChurch is described as "a national coalition of parish-based Catholics who seek the full participation of all baptized Catholics in the life of the Church."
Sister Christine said the organization believes the long-range answer to the priest shortage will require the ordination of women and making celibacy optional for priests.
Meanwhile, however, FutureChurch "respects the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and its current position on ordination."
Last year, the group created a Save Our Parish Community project designed to provide resources to parishes that are targeted, or fear being targeted, for closure or merger.
"We're not saying that every parish should stay open no matter what. Some parishes do need to close," Sister Christine said. "If they have shrinking membership, shrinking funding base, declining sacramental base, no apostolic outreach to others, then maybe it's time to look at the handwriting on the wall."
But too many vibrant, healthy parishes are being closed unnecessarily, she said.
"If you close a parish, you're breaking up communities and I think that's tragic. When I look at parishes like St. James in Kansas [Ohio], it breaks my heart. It reminds me of why our mission is so important."
St. James, which was ordered closed in 2005, lost an appeal to the Vatican and is pursuing efforts in civil court.
Sister Christine said lay people could provide valuable insights and alternatives to closings if the church hierarchy would listen, but their input often is not taken seriously by dioceses in determining parish closings.
"They'll say the people were involved in the decision-making process, but often what happens is something other than what was recommended," Sister Christine said.
Sister Christine Schenk will speak to the United Parishes meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Kansas United Methodist Church in Kansas, Ohio, in Seneca County. More information is available online at www.futurechurch.org or by calling 216-228-0869.
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