Keeler taps first layperson to lead a parish in diocese

Appointment reflects worsening priest shortage

January 16, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In a sign of the worsening shortage of Catholic priests in the United States, Cardinal William H. Keeler has chosen a former health-care executive as the first layperson to lead a Baltimore-area parish.

The appointment of Anne Buening to lead St. Clement I in Lansdowne marks the first time a married lay woman 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 Buening, 50, who has worked full time on the ministerial staff of St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville since 1998.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions on the first layperson being appointed to lead a parish in the Archdiocese of Baltimore failed to identify the Rev. Patrick M. Carrion, director of the Division of Clergy Personnel, as a priest. The Sun regrets the error.

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.

But with six parishes in the Baltimore Archdiocese now without priests as pastors, a number expected to rise substantially in coming decades, church officials say they will increasingly appoint deacons, nuns and laypeople to administer parishes. Buening is a pioneer in the church's strategy to deal with the priest shortage, which includes efforts to recruit more men to the priesthood. Those efforts were laid out in The Hope That Lies Before Us, a report released last year that was overshadowed by the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

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 is not a priest.

Nationally, between 500 and 600 parishes are led by a deacon, nun, brother or layperson, said Monsignor Philip J. 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 Murnion said there can be advantages to having a layperson, particularly a woman, as parish leader. "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 priestless. Each has a priest assigned to it who will be regularly available to provide the sacraments, including Mass, baptisms and funerals.

"One of the concerns people have is, what happens when someone dies?" said Patrick M. Carrion, director of the Division of Clergy Personnel. "There's a sense that they're not going to see a priest again."

By appointing a priest to consistently provide sacraments for a parish with a pastoral life director, "we create a relationship between the people and the priest so that when they do want to be married or baptized or buried, they don't feel the priest is a stranger," he said.

In this case, parish staffing has been exacerbated by the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Two of the personnel moves announced this week were made to fill vacancies created by priests who were removed from their posts because of accusations of sexual indiscretions. At St. Clement I, where Buening will take over, the pastor was removed in March after allegations surfaced in March that he used crack cocaine and solicited a male prostitute.

Buening, who is married with two children - one of whom will be ordained a priest for Baltimore in May - 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."

She began attending classes at the Washington Theological Union and was hired in 1998 by Monsignor Joseph L. Luca to oversee social justice, bereavement and adult education programs at St. Louis parish in Clarksville.

Buening says she knows she faces a challenge in her new assignment, as the parish still grieves over losing its pastor. "It's a challenge of reconciliation and healing and love," she said.

She faces other problems as well. The parish budget is in the red, and the facility is in poor shape. "But leaking roofs and unbalanced budgets are no match for love and goodness," she said.

At Sunday's Mass, she introduced herself for the first time.

"One of the things I said to them upfront is `I am a lay married woman. I'm not a priest, I'm not a deacon,'" she said. "On Sunday, I think the most important place I can be is in the back of the church, hugging people, loving people, asking `How is your mother, your father, your son, your daughter?'"

At the end of the Mass, she walked to the back of the church with the priest.

"I was greeted with hugs and tears," she said. "And people said, `All we wanted was someone to say they loved us.'"

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