Married Laywoman to Lead Parish

The Washington Times
January 19, 2003

BALTIMORE (AP) — Cardinal William Keeler has chosen a former health care executive as the first layperson to lead a Baltimore area parish, a decision that reflects the shortage of Catholic priests in the United States.

Anne Buening's appointment to lead St. Clement I in Lansdowne marks the first time a married laywoman will lead a parish in the Baltimore Archdiocese.

"I'm humbled by the honor and responsibility to be the servant leader of this community," said the 50-year-old, who has worked full time on the ministerial staff of St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville since 1998.

Until now, nuns typically have been tapped to serve as "pastoral life directors" to lead the few parishes that have no full-time priests, overseeing budgets and religious education programs and counseling parishioners.

Six parishes in the Baltimore Archdiocese are now without priests as pastors, and officials say the number is expected to rise substantially in coming decades. Church officials say they'll increasingly appoint deacons, nuns and laypeople to administer parishes.

The crisis in Baltimore reflects the priest shortage nationally. Between 1965 and 2000, the number of priests in the United States declined 20 percent, even as the number of Catholics rose 27 percent, to 62 million, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

In the Baltimore Archdiocese, the number of Catholics has increased 1 percent since 1965, to 486,000 in 2000, while priest ranks have declined by 29 percent, to 196. Based on those figures, an archdiocese study projected that by 2005, 24 parishes will be staffed by pastoral life directors. A decade later, nearly a third of all parishes could be led by someone who isn't a priest.

Nationally, between 500 and 600 parishes are led by a deacon, nun, brother or layperson, said Monsignor Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center.

There has been resistance to having laypeople as parish leaders. Last year, a group of conservative Catholics in Lexington, Ky., filed a complaint with the Vatican after the archdiocese announced plans to shift some responsibilities from priests to laypeople.

But Monsignor Murnion said having a layperson, particularly a woman, as parish leader has advantages. "Our data show they're more likely to do things like home visitations, or to show support for people in difficulties."

Baltimore church officials stressed that parishes with pastoral life directors will not be without priests. Each has a priest assigned to provide the sacraments, including Mass, baptisms and funerals.

At St. Clement I the pastor was removed in March after allegations surfaced that he used crack cocaine and solicited a male prostitute.

Mrs. Buening, who is married with two children, had been a clinical social worker in a hospice. She then entered the health care management field and climbed the corporate ladder before having a religious awakening about four years ago.

"What I saw was money had become the most significant thing in health care, more significant than I was comfortable with," she said. "It was one of those conversions."

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