Mass Attendance Dips 5 Percent, Cleric Says

Toledo Blade [Toledo OH]
Downloaded April 26, 2003

Since the American Roman Catholic Church has been shaken by a sexual-abuse scandal in the last year, Mass attendance in the Toledo Diocese has declined 5 percent, but eight men also are planning to enter the seminary in the fall, the highest number in 20 years.

The Rev. Michael Billian, chancellor of the diocese, offered both statistics during a taping of The Editors television program in response to questions about how the scandal has affected the local church.

Father Billian was questioned by Thomas Walton, vice president-editor of The Blade, and Marilou Johanek of The Blade editorial board. The Editors will be broadcast at 9 tonight on WGTE-TV, Channel 30, and at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on WBGU-TV, Channel 27.

Asked whether the local church had lost members as a result of the sexual-abuse crisis, Father Billian said Mass attendance has decreased in the last year but that he does not know whether it is related to the scandal or a result of demographics.

He also was questioned about the scandal's impact on priest recruitment and said he had just learned from the diocesan vocations director about the increase in seminarians. At the same time, he said, the diocese suffers from a shortage of priests because it has not been ordaining the large classes of priests it once did.

Father Billian said the sexual-abuse crisis has been traumatic at the diocesan level, but he said he believes the church here has seen the worst of it and that the damage is repairable. Ultimately, he added, he thinks the scandal will make the church better.

He said the church must continue to support the victims of clergy sexual abuse but acknowledged nothing can be done to make things right for them.

"They lost something that can never be replaced. I don't think there is anything we can do to give that back to them."

He said in helping victims, the diocese cannot give the same package to everyone and that individual victims must be the ones to determine what they need.

Father Billian also was asked to comment on Pope John Paul II's recent reminder to Catholics who divorce and remarry outside the church that they should not receive communion.

He said the teaching is not a new one, and it is the church's responsibility to reach out to such people and help them get their marriages blessed by the church so they are returned to full communion.

Asked whether the Pope is turning people away from the church by making such pronouncements, Father Billian replied that it is the Pope's ministry to uphold an ideal, not appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Father Billian, whose name has been mentioned as a possible successor to the late Bishop James Hoffman, said if he were tapped to serve the diocese as its leader, he probably wouldn't have the option of declining because of his vow of obedience.

He did say the next bishop should be a spiritual man who is gifted in communicating with people, able to handle administrative responsibilities and tough issues, and be a "great preacher" in word and action.

Father Billian said of the six bishops who have served the Toledo Diocese, only two, including Bishop Hoffman, have been from inside the diocese. The trend seems to be to pick new bishops from outside the dioceses they serve, he said.


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