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Priestless parishes are only beginning of story.

Not long ago, Jean and I spent an overnight with my cousin Jack, a priest and pastor in Pawtucket, R.I. I've got roots there. My maternal grandparent's bones rest there; my mother took her first breaths there. The town is more densely Catholic than heaven. About 80 percent of its 72,000 citizens are Irish, French, Italian or Portuguese Catholics.

The priest shortage has hit Catholic Rhode Island as hard as any other place. Officially, Jack is alone at St. Mary's in a rectory that once had suites to accommodate at least six priests. The rectory was so elaborate that when the bishop came to bless it, he took one look, put his holy water bucket back on his horsedrawn carriage and went home. He feared the holy water would turn to steam on the carved banisters and brass door-knobs the size of St. Peter's big toe.

Jack has cleaned up the rectory and the church. There is a good school and a graveyard: A lot of the upscale descendants of the Pawtucket Irish want to come back to St. Mary's to wait for God. (Earlier pastors sneaked a lot of poor people into the cemetery. Those who couldn't afford Irish real estate, as it was then called, were wedged in between those who had a plot and a stone. Now, as descendants arrive, Jack has to shove a stick in the ground to be certain the spot hasn't been taken by a penniless squatter.)

There was a time when one could drop dead on a Pawtucket street and a priest would be there before one's head hit the pavement. Now, Fr. John Unsworth has a retired military chaplain living in the rectory, and as a pastor emeritus. But the chaplain works at a nearby hospital and the retired pastor spends the weekdays at a nursing home.

Jack cooks his own meals now. When the bishop came the night after our visit, Jack had Chinese delivered.

"We could probably get by with five churches in Pawtucket," he said. "But there are strong ethnic links." The church tried to move from national to territorial parishes around 1910, but the plan didn't work. Jack doesn't favor closing any of the parishes, but he sees the day when five or fewer pastors will minister to all 12 parishes until they fade away.

The old faithful are dying, and younger Catholics aren't going to Mass the way they used to. The grand brass tabernacles are holding up, but the boilers are going.

The Steubenville diocese, in southeastern Ohio, has only 45,000 Catholics in a population of 525,000. Its 75 active diocesan priests work in 73 parishes. The diocese isn't much more populous that a Brooklyn parish in the 1950s, but the priest shortage has forced it to cluster 43 of its parishes under 19 priests. Within six years, 20 priests will reach retirement age, and the diocese has only one seminarian. Steubenville's Holy Name Cathedral now offers one Mass on Sunday morning.

It seems clear the priest numbers are dropping at an even more rapid rate than predicted, yet the number of cradle Catholics may reach 74 million by the millennium.

The Chicago archdiocese, the nation's second-largest, is contemplating circuit-riding priests, turning administration over to non-clergy, including women.

The proposed "pastors" would be called "pastoral coordinators" - a full-time position, paying in the $30,000 range. They would work under the supervision of two clergy - the priest of the neighboring parish and a sacramental minister.

The archdiocese has no timetable in place but it's a good chance the change will come sooner than later. Chicago expects to have only 648 active priests in 1996 and fewer than 500 by the year 2000 - down from 1,344 in the mid-1960s. Twenty years ago, they had 455 parishes; today, they have 380.

The planners are stuck between the pope's zucchetto and long-standing traditions. They are forced to plan within a framework that still forbids optional celibacy, married priests or women priests. They must deal with an increasingly impatient faithful who, in the words of one pastor, "are no longer craven." Laity want Eucharist. Celibacy makes no sense to them, especially when reliable studies reveal that it celibacy were made optional, there would be a surplus of priests by the turn of the century.

The planners are laying out pretty stiff qualifications for the coordinators: a master of divinity degree or its equivalent, at least seven years' experience in parish ministries and three years' in administration - more than it asks of its seminarians. An archdiocesan spokeswoman admitted the present roster of qualified people had only 15 names, the majority of whom are nuns.

The archdiocese will need to reorder some of its priorities. Last year, it spent $4.5 million in its seminary system to ordain a dozen priests, barely replacing those who resign, not to mention those who retire or die.

The system will raise women another rung on the ecclesiastical ladder. Carol Fowler, archdiocesan director of personnel services, said 75 dioceses employed more than 300 pastoral coordinators; 70 percent of them are women.

It's clear that women are taking control of the church from the bottom while the clerical church tries to balance precariously on its top rungs. The projections in Chicago, for example, show the number of priests' working in parishes dropping dramatically but the number involved in administration remaining the same. It's easier to close a parish than to remove a desk.

The Chicago plan has its lumps. It could create a two-tiered system with the best parishes going to the priests. If the church chose effective, charismatic pastoral coordinators, the faithful could grow used to their pastoral, prayer and preaching style and demand that they preside at liturgies at which Catholics are hatched, matched and dispatched, rather than putting up with a circuit-riding pastor who reads the name of the deceased from a palm card tucked in his alb.

The plan may require that the Chicago church look at its 573 permanent deacons and 175 pastoral associates - most of them women - for pastoral coordinator talent. It could mean that a married and/or female priesthood could gradually evolve from the shift.

"I'm already doing everything except walking up the aisle and sitting in the presider's chair," one female pastoral associate said. "I'm the weekday presider. The pastor does funerals and weddings but doesn't get up for morning Mass on weekdays. I do hospital visits and, in effect, hear confessions."

In the Peoria diocese, Fr. Kenneth Przybyla's business card identifies him as pastor of St. Catherine, St. John, St. Anthony, St. Mary and St. Therese parishes, all in Mercer County next to the Mississippi River.

He says he can do the job, but Przybyla, rural life director for the diocese, also is concerned about the future: "In 10 or 20 years, we could see a big population shift as this area becomes a retirement community. There may be no priests to serve them."

Przybyla, who come completed graduate studies in theology at the University of Notre Dame, now has an associate, as well as a nun and permanent deacon. "Were really better staffed than many large parishes," he said.

He's well-organized. On weekends, he or his associate, travel about 100 miles in two days to preside at eight Masses. His "Mercer Kingdom News" serves as the parish bulletin for all five parishes, although each parish has its own financial report. Each parish must meet its own expenses, but there is a Common Catholic Account that permits a parish to rob Peter to pay Paul, if Paul has a truly worthwhile cause.

If there are problems in the five parishes, they stem from the differing socioeconomic levels and differing lifestyles. The rural church, once the best at Mass attendance, is in decline, largely because of the priest shortage, which also affects the inner city. With one hand tied, there is little the church can do except evolve into a suburban church.

In St. Cloud, Minn., where there are 157 diocesan priests serving 149,000 Catholics, most diocesan offices are headed by laypeople, including sisters. Only four priests work full time at the chancery, and one of them will resign in July to return to parish work.

St. Cloud has 143 parishes. Two priests will retire in 1994; none will be ordained. Sadly, the chancery official's action won't ease the problem. In the same week he made his announcement, a St. Cloud pastor requested an indefinite leave of absence.

Fr. Eugene Hemrick now director of research for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, once served Mass in a Chicago parish that had 10 priests. His old parish is now closed. Yet Hemrick finds that parish life not only survives "but in many ways it is thriving."

"We're in an age of unique innovation." he wrote in his syndicated Catholic News Service column. "(We're) responding to current needs and services that once did not exists."

Hemrick thinks today's parishes are more efficient. They are supplying better liturgies and are adjusting to the needs of multiculturalism. Further, laity are gradually taking over tasks once coveted by priests.

It's going to be interesting. We could end up like the Church of England with about 60 active parishioners per parish, or we could create newer models of church that we have yet to imagine.
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Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 15, 1994
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