Catholics Fear Future Priest Shortage

By Eric Convey
Boston Herald
January 26, 2003

The Archdiocese of Boston faces a sudden worsening of its priest shortage over the next few years as the clergy molestation scandal takes its toll.

While cautioning that it's too early to know exactly what effects the scandal will produce, church leaders fear they'll be forced to further consolidate parishes.

Among the factors that worry archdiocesan officials:

More than two dozen priests were removed from parishes in 2002 under a strict new archdiocesan policy for handling allegations of clergy sex abuse. While some may be reinstated, a provision banning even one-time offenders from public ministry is likely to exclude many whose records were clear for decades.

``No one expected it,'' said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman.

Some older priests who might have delayed retirement to help maintain parish staffing announced over the past year that the stress of the abuse crisis led them to step down.

A higher-than-usual number of priests died over the past year.

The newest class in the pre-theology program at St. John's Seminary is far smaller than what is necessary to maintain parish staffing.

In most years, at least a half-dozen men enter pre-theology; six years later, nearly all become priests. But this past fall only three students entered, making it all but certain that the archdiocese will produce a tiny ordination class at the end of this decade.

Moreover, officials have no way of knowing whether the situation will improve in the short term.

Coyne, who in addition to his spokesman duties is a professor at St. John's, attributed the small class to the molestation crisis.

The size of classes at St. John's is crucial because the seminary is the archdiocese's main source of priests.

Any dip below six ordinations per year is significant because the figure represents the number of priests needed to maintain staffing for the 362 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, officials have said.

The archdiocese has about 900 priests, but the figure declines by a few dozen each year.

Already, some bigger parishes that could keep two priests busy are surviving with just one. By traditional standards, between 15 and 20 parishes are understaffed, according to an archdiocesan official. That puts a huge burden on pastors.

Coyne said the priest shortage may affect decisions as parishes are consolidated and others are expanded over the next few years.

``It's a matter of trying to put people where the need is,'' he said.

While no new Boston consolidation plans have been announced, the Diocese of Worcester last week told parishes they would have to team up in small clusters of two or three each to share resources - including, presumably, their priests if one parish in a group loses its pastor.

Nationwide, the number of parishes without their own priests has grown to almost 3,000 in 2002 from 549 in 1965, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Over the same period, the number of priests ordained has fallen by more than 50 percent. Meanwhile, at 62.2 million, the country's Catholic population is bigger than ever.

While efforts have been under way at least since the 1980s to raise interest in the priesthood, one way the church has coped with the decline has been by greatly expanding the role of laypeople. A growing number of men are becoming deacons, positions that allow them to be married and perform some of the major functions once reserved mostly for priests.

While the quantity of priests is a problem, several people close to the archdiocese said quality is not.

A former professor at St. John's, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the shrinking numbers but said students have gotten better - at least academically - year after year.

That uptick, another member of the seminary community said, corresponded with Bernard Cardinal Law's appointment of now-Bishop Richard G. Lennon as rector several years ago.

In an unusual twist, Lennon yesterday ordained to the diaconate 11 men whose spiritual formation he oversaw over the past several years.

A key to ministering in their wounded church will be to make sure there's no ``disconnect'' between what they preach and how they live, Lennon said.

Following a year of troubling revelations, ``it probably looks like (the job) is more challenging,'' he added. ``But with God, all things are possible.''

Lennon was echoing a theme he'd struck during his homily at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross yesterday.

Though he did not mention the scandal, he sternly told the men, after giving them copies of the Gospel, to ``believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach.''

He called celibacy ``both a sign and a motive of pastoral charity and a special source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.''

Two of the new mens upon whom the responsibilities will fall, barring any last-minute changes of heart, will be Brian Smith of Weymouth and Martin McNulty Jr. of Medfield. Both were ordained deacons yesterday and should become priests May 24.

Smith said the revelations of the last year troubled him and his peers, but that God has been preparing him for the priesthood all his life.

``I don't want to be anywhere else,'' he said. ``If anything, (the scandal) helps us realize we know what the work is we need to do.''

McNulty said he remains ``very excited'' about becoming a priest.

``I think the role of the priest is still the same as it's always been, but there's been a lot of changes in the church recently,'' he said. ``Regardless of the situation, you have to go forward and do what God's calling you to do.''


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