Shortage of priests challenges faithful Catholic leaders press recruiting efforts

July 28, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

For nearly five years, Cardinal William H. Keeler has been the host of spaghetti suppers for prospective seminarians at his elegant home. He believes that direct, intimate appeals are more effective than casting a wide net to bring men to the priesthood.

His catch, though, is minuscule. And it's hardly slowing the steady decline in the numbers of priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Next year, only one priest is to be ordained in the archdiocese. This year, four priests were ordained, while seven retired or took leaves of absence.

"Despite the impressive efforts by Cardinal Keeler to recruit, in the next five years we are going to have fewer and fewer priests," says Bishop P. Francis Murphy, one of three chief deputies to Keeler.

Parishes across the country are struggling with similar declines. By 2005, about 21,000 diocesan priests will be working in the United States, a 40 percent drop from the 35,000 priests in 1966. Meanwhile, the number of Roman Catholics continues to surge -- a growth fueled largely by the immigration of Hispanics and Asians. Nationally, the number of Catholics is expected to rise more than 60 percent by 2005, from 45 million in 1965 to 75 million.

The demand for priests is forcing dioceses across the country to initiate creative and sometimes controversial recruitment campaigns. Already, about 10 percent of U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest and are instead run by pastoral coordinators -- nuns or lay people who handle day-to-day operations.

The recruitment office of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles started a Web page last year to disseminate information about its priest-training programs.

And the Diocese of Syracuse, N.Y., has reached halfway around the world to hire priests from developing countries that have an abundance of clergy. Two months ago, a priest from Kenya began work at Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Utica, N.Y. By the end of the year, two other African priests are to begin work there, and 10 more will be hired in the next five years. Officials at the diocese also have begun efforts to hire priests from Central America to serve their growing Spanish-speaking communities.

"It is very much number one on my agenda," says Bishop James M. Moynihan of the priest shortage. "Since we are not finding new priests in this country, I decided to go to places where priests are."

Some believe that the lack of priests is so critical that the church must take more dramatic steps.

"I think the Holy Spirit is speaking very clearly. It is time to open the ministry to married men and women," says the Rev. Wayne G. Funk, pastor at St. John the Evangelist parish in Frederick. "I think there are tons of people who would make excellent priests who are married or who may want to marry."

That point of view has been rejected by the Catholic leadership, including Keeler and Pope John Paul II.

In an interview, Keeler disagreed with the opinions expressed by Funk, saying that expression of such views "only adds to the confusion" of the issue.

"There are men out there who are being called to the priesthood, and what we need to do is concentrate on finding them, rather than looking to those other kinds of things," he says. "We should be as clear and supportive to them as we can and not bring up those other ideas."

In the Baltimore area, the shortage of priests is most critical in Carroll, Harford, Howard and Frederick counties. Church membership in those areas has doubled or tripled since 1975. For example, St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster is expected to grow to 5,000 families by 2005. In 1972, only 400 families worshiped there.

Priests are central to the life of Catholicism because it is a faith that is based on sacraments that can only be performed by clergy. Priests also represent a congregation's spiritual link to the pope and to God.

Murphy says that the demand for priests in the suburbs has turned the job into a "back-breaking experience." The strain becomes greater as priests age. By 2005, research shows, more than half of all priests will be over 55.

It is not uncommon for priests at burgeoning parishes to celebrate three to six Masses each weekend and also to preside over weddings and funerals and hear confessions.

Funk, 58, the priest at St. John parish in Frederick, has often heard similar comments.

Ordained 33 years ago, he says he is unable to find time for the kind of work that inspired him to become a priest: developing the spiritual lives of individuals and families.

"Practically never do I have a day when I can go out and visit families," says Funk. "There's no time to do it."

He and an associate pastor serve more than 3,500 families who worship at the parish, a church with a stone front that towers above most other buildings in the center of town. The two priests also oversee a school that Funk says is "jam-packed" with 525 students from grades K through 8. They work as chaplains at the local hospital. And they say Mass at each of the area's five nursing homes once a month.

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