Parishes Without Priests June 20, 2003

P.B.S. [New York]
Downloaded June 28, 2003 Episode 642

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, the priest shortage, and its impact on parish life. There are more than 19,000 Roman Catholic parishes in this country, and about 3,000 of them do not have a resident priest. Most of those parishes are in the Midwest and West. Weekend masses are said by priests who serve more than one parish, sometimes driving considerable distances to do so. But when there is no priest around during the week, who's in charge?

Judy Valente reports from Mount Vernon, Iowa.

JUDY VALENTE: Father Dave Ambrosy is tired. He's seen patients at the hospital where he is chaplain, presided over a funeral and a wedding, and now, at five in the afternoon, he is saying mass at St. John the Baptist Church. But he is not the pastor. The closest thing to a pastor here is this laywoman.

(to Sue Schettler): Do you feel like a pastor?

SUE SCHETTLER (Lay Pastoral Administrator): I think I feel like the leader of the community and I think that people look to me as that.

VALENTE: Although the Catholic Church doesn't allow women to be priests, the people here call Sue Schettler "pastor." Married with three children, she has long been director of religious education. Then, two years ago, St. John the Baptist lost its pastor.

Ms. SCHETTLER: Unfortunately, Father Duster had passed away and the parish was in a position where there was no one to place here as a permanent priest.

VALENTE: This sprawling, mostly rural archdiocese has 202 parishes, many of them small. Less than half have a resident priest, meaning many priests have to serve more than one parish. Sue Schettler is one of eight so-called pastoral administrators in this archdiocese. She also has to serve two parishes. There just aren't enough priests.

Father DAVE AMBROSY (Archdiocese of Dubuque): When I was ordained 18 years ago, there was almost 300 of us, and now there's about 120. In five to 10 years, they project it will be 75 and we still have 200 parishes, we have eight high schools, 60 grade schools, three Catholic colleges, and other institutions.

VALENTE: Twenty years ago, the Catholic Church revised its code of canon law. One of the provisions addressed the shortage of priests. That provision says that if a bishop determines that he doesn't have enough priests to serve his parishes, he can appoint a deacon, a religious brother or sister, or a layperson, endowing him or her with "the powers and faculties of a pastor."

Sociologist Ruth Wallace has studied the role of lay pastoral administrators.

RUTH WALLACE (Professor Emeritus, George Washington University): The person who is on hand is the one who's there for counseling and advice and so on, and for keeping the parish running. But some of the spiritual needs are sacramental. That's what the priest takes care of.

VALENTE: Father Ambrosy comes on weekends to hear confessions and say mass, and is available for baptisms, funerals, and weddings. But the rest of the time, Schettler is in charge.

(to Ms. Schettler): Do you feel like a priest?

Ms. SCHETTLER: Oh, no. I don't have a call to ordination at all. I don't see my job as a replacement for priesthood. I think it frees the priest to do what they're called to do, which is to minister to the poor, to preach, and to do the sacraments and to be priests.

VALENTE: That leaves a lot of other things to be done. But the job entails more than administrative tasks. Most pastoral administrators must have a master's degree in theology. Schettler has degrees in both psychology and pastoral studies, and does counsel parishioners.

Ms. SCHETTLER: I have psychology as a background, so I can work from that angle and spiritually, I think, just helping them understand the Church's law and understanding the Church's position on issues. I have 24 years of marriage. I have raised two children who are now adults and I have a preteen, so I think I have human experience to bring to that.

VALENTE: At her formal installation last year, Schettler was generally well received, though some parishioners were concerned.

SHARON DENDURENT (St. John the Baptist Parish Finance Committee): It was mainly the unknown, fear of the unknown. We had a parish council meeting, lots of meetings trying to prepare people for this -- trying to tell them about the issues in the archdiocese. Sue was a little skeptical herself.

Ms. SCHETTLER: I just talked a little bit about the requirement of all of us working together and making this a community effort. I could not do this job if it were not for the people.

LYLE ANDERSEN (Parishioner, St. Isidore Parish): What it's really saying is that the Church is the people, and the people in various churches need to come together and find their direction as they go forward themselves.

VALENTE: (to John Klopp) Was Sue's gender an issue?

JOHN KLOPP (St. John the Baptist Parish Council): No, absolutely not.

Sister MARY MONTGOMERY (Director of Pastoral Planning, Archdiocese of Dubuque): The people are very concerned that the parish not close. So, first it's a big sigh of relief that the parish can stay open, and so there's a willingness to cooperate and work with what they have.

VALENTE: Sunday morning: the 9 a.m. mass at St. Isidore has just ended. As on most Sundays, Father Ambrosy and Schettler barely have time to get in their cars and drive 15 miles to their other parish, St. John the Baptist, for the 10:30 mass.

Ms. SCHETTLER: By the end of the weekend you can get pretty tired. We're cutting it close, but this is pretty normal. I can see we have a train ahead. It looks like a long one. People understand if we're a little late.

VALENTE: During the week, Schettler attends to parish ministries, parish business, and personal crises. Schettler works from 50 to 60 hours a week. Lay parish administrators earn between $35,000 and $45,000 a year.

Sister MARY MONTGOMERY: I think they bring a love for the Church. They have chosen to serve the Church knowing they will not have mansions, in this world anyway.

VALENTE: Many bishops may be forced to look at this alternative if current trends continue.

Father AMBROSY: Less and less priests. Health concerns, the stress of being a pastor, being in charge always, people looking to you for all the answers.

Ms. SCHETTLER: I pray for him every day in his vocation and his well-being. His work here is very important. His work and his well-being are very important. Catholic people love their priests, they're an important visual sign in our faith.

My fear is that we won't have Eucharist every week in a parish, and so we'll be re-creating ourselves in terms of small faith communities. I hate to say we could come to that, but I think we may end up, that will be our reality.

Monsignor RUSSELL BLEICH (Vicar of Priests, Archdiocese of Dubuque): If you listen to people talk and it sounds like, "Oh, there's something wonderful that's dying, this is something bad," and that is true. Another time you listen to them and they're saying, "Something is being born. There's birth pains here, something wonderful is coming."

VALENTE: The shortage of priests shows no sign of abating, and the impact of the clergy sex abuse scandal on future vocations remains to be seen. But there is one sign of hope. Thirty years after Vatican II greatly expanded the role of the laity, there is no shortage of laypeople available to perform some of the ministries once reserved for priests.

For RELIGION AND ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I'm Judy Valente in Mount Vernon, Iowa.

ABERNETHY: About 350 parishes are run by deacons or religious sisters or brothers. Another 110 are run by laypersons, like Sue Schettler.


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