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Finding creative solutions for dioceses most in need.

One way to get the attention of your parishioners is to have a baby." That's what Jeff Kelling and his wife, Ann, experienced during their early years of parish work up in the Yukon. "It's a great evangelizing tool," Kelling said, half in jest, half in earnest. "The people in our Yukon village all stopped us to talk. It gave us a chance to talk with them."

Chalk up another for optional celibacy.

For Jeff and Ann, all that was three kids and a dozen years ago. The Kellings are now in the young diocese of Colorado Springs where Jeff is parish director of Pax Christi Parish in Littleton, Colo., in the northern end of Douglas County, a relic's throw from the Denver archdiocese.

Colorado Springs has only 38 diocesan priests and 29 parishes, nearly half in the city of Colorado Springs. Its 76,000 Catholics are spread unevenly across 15,500 square miles -- about four times the acreage of the New York archdiocese.

The diocese is less than 10 years old. The area is about 15 percent Catholic. Its bishop, Richard C. Hanifen, was an auxiliary in Denver before becoming an ordinary in 1984. It's one of the fastest-growing areas of the country, filling up with people in search of fresh air.

Parish director is a new title in the competition for theologically correct language. Associate pastor implies the thumbprint of ordination; pastoral associate suggests a lower status. So he's called parish director. "There's still a lot of language confusion," Kelling said. Perhaps just "pastor" would do.

Kelling's job as mission organizer for the diocese is to open parishes that do not have a resident priest. He started Pax Christi five years ago. The effort has taken all his time, but future lay-founded parishes are in the works.

Pax Christi reminds one of the early lay-trustee parishes that immigrant Catholics established in the 18th and 19th centuries. Typically, a group of lay Catholics would form a church, send back to the old country for a priest and inform a grateful bishop.

However, in Irish parishes, by the 1850s, the congregational model had shifted to the clerical model. Other immigrant groups resisted the trend but, by the 1920s, the tradition of laypeople participating in the organization and government of the local church bad come to an end. Now it may be heading back in the other direction.

Pax Christi is run by the parishioners. "I just get out of their way," Kelling said. "And it works." The parish council together with the finance and stewardship committees, form the core of the operation.

"We ask for money only once each year," he said. "We have no second collections but we average $4,500 per week. The people are involved, so they give. We do what the parishioners allow us to do financially."

"It's not a priestless parish," he continued. "We have five or six guys. They're Jesuits from the Jesuit Retreat House and the University of Denver. It's not rent-a-priest. Most of them are regulars and they know the people."

Pax Christi is located on the second floor of an insurance building. It has just three offices and a meeting room. It uses a public school gym for its weekend liturgies. The congregation bas grown to over 400 families. Last year, nearly 70 received their first, Eucharist. "It's an awfully young parish," Kelling observed. "We've buried only three people since it was founded. The people are young. Nobody is really from here."

"When we have a wedding, we call around and find a church. If we can't find a Catholic church, we use the Lutheran one."

Kelling and volunteer staffers prepare engaged couples, as well as baptism, first Eucharist, first reconciliation and confirmation candidates. When marriages come unglued, the couples receive counseling or are put in touch with other counselors. Annulment petitions go downtown, just as in other parishes. In short, with the exception of the eucharistic liturgy and reconciliation, Kelling, his staff and volunteers handle all of the parish's needs.

At times, Pax Christi finds itself priestless. On such occasions, Kelling presides, using a Eueharist-in-the-absence-of-a-priest formula he brought with him from Canada.

With 52,277 priests (34,388 of them diocesan) serving 19,971 parishes, there are still well over 2.5 priests available per parish. But poor distribution, aging, retirements, sickness and a host of other problems have left potholes that defy repair. In a diocese of 500 priests, only 300 priests may be active. Thus, bulk figures are deceptive.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops bas four standing committees on aspects of the priesthood. The one on priestly distribution hasn't met in over a decade. Now that John Paul II has asked for action on redistribution, there could be some movement. But just a few years ago, when a promising canon lawyer suggested linking priest-rich with priest-poor dioceses, he was treated as if he had nailed his scholarly article to the door of a cathedral.

With decisions heavily influenced by large and moneyed dioceses, the NCCB is still playing sandbox. As a result, over 2,000 parishes no longer have a resident priest. Others are merged or closed for the want of a priest.

Chicago has no priestless parishes, for example, but has closed nearly 60 in recent years. Cincinnati will ordain only 22 new priests in the next decade. In that period, it will lose over 100 through retirement alone. Only 282 of its 400 priests are active in its 244 parishes and only 13 are under 35. The Rockford, Ill., diocese has recently reintegrated a resigned priest and made him pastor of three parishes at age 76. It is a system beyond crisis.

Kelling's model may offer some hope. As a founding parish director, he had no baggage from previous pastors. Generally, when clergy are withdrawn from a parish, it means that the church is already doomed. The young director, a native of Bloomington, Minn., with degrees from the University of Minnesota and the Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa, is an employee of the diocese. His compensation is determined by the bishop, not by the congregation, and he is tied to one diocese. "There's no portability of benefits from one place to another," he said. "But that may come in time."

The parish is paying back the seed money it received from the diocese. Presently, there is a facility evaluation study underway. But it's not a building committee. "We don't know if we'll ever build a church," Kelling said. "That will come from the people."

"We're pooling resources," Kelling said. "Priests are just one of those resources."

North of Denver, in Longmont, The Spirit of Peace Catholic Community shares its facilities with the Westview Presbyterian Church. According to the pastor, Fr. Daniel Flaherty, the no-building arrangement permits the 550-household parish to spend 80 percent of its budget directly on ministry. It also allows Flaherty to "enable" (a word he prefers) two parishes.

In Flaherty's vision of the near future, one-fourth of all new parishes will be alternative type -- like Pax Christi or sharing with Protestants like Spirit of Peace; one-third of all parish priests will pastor two parishes; permanent deacons will increase; two-thirds of all ministry will be done by women (nonordained for now).

Flaherty travels the country, offering his ideas to dioceses seeking solutions to a clerically bound church gradually evolving toward a laicized church. He sees today's problem as "a golden age of opportunity" for the church. "We haven't been challenged like this for 400 years," he said. "Optimistically, it can be viewed as a special day."

Clearly, the creative solutions are coming out of the dioceses most in need. Just as clearly, it remains a church tied to the Eucharist, not a congregationalist model that can survive on the Word alone.

Perhaps the models found at Pax Christi and Spirit of Peace can hold us over for a few more decades until the old traditions give way like a Mississippi levee.

(Jeff Kelling can be reached at [303] 799-1036. Daniel Flaherty is at [303] 772-6322.)
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Title Annotation:'parish director' Jeff Kelling
Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 27, 1993
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