Sr. Vicki Staub, SSJ, director of mission and ministries, leads… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
With Father Patrick Carrion away, a nun led a morning service last week at St. Mary Star of the Sea, directing the gathering of 15 worshippers in Catholic hymns and prayers, and distributing the Communion that the priest had consecrated before leaving.
The pastor could not find another priest to fill in for him while he left his South Baltimore congregation to take a brief vacation. He returned in time to say four weekend Masses, but in the meantime left condensed daily worship services to Sister Victoria Staub.
This circumstance at one parish underscores the critical shortage of priests across the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In response, church leaders are asking its 153 parishes to evaluate Mass schedules and consider cutting back, particularly if similar services are offered nearby. In Baltimore alone, there are 50 parishes. Several within blocks of each other have identical Mass schedules and many services are lightly attended.
"If three parishes in the same area … all have 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday that are one-third full, why not schedule one Mass?" said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese, which includes more than 500,000 Catholics.
Nearly half of the archdiocese's 153 active priests will reach the retirement age of 70 within the next 15 years, and 17 are already eligible to retire, church officials said. If the trend continues, there may be fewer than 100 priests by 2025.
Carrion's congregation has already experienced the problem to a greater degree than many other churches. He is the pastor and lone priest serving the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, a grouping of three parishes — St. Mary's, Holy Cross and Good Counsel — with about 1,200 members in all. The churches became one community in 2002 in response to the scarcity of priests and their own declining congregations.
While the number of American Catholics has remained fairly constant at about 22 percent of the population, the number of priests continues to decline, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
"When the number of priests comes close to the number of parishes, the problem is approaching critical," said Mark Gray, senior research associate. "Unless there is a significant increase in ordinations, the shortage will only get worse."
Some scholars trace the decline in priestly vocations to the sweeping changes, including alterations to the Mass, that occurred in the church after Vatican II, a council of church leaders who worked on areas of religious concerns from 1962 to 1965.
Many Catholics found the changes difficult to accept and vocations to the religious life have fallen off ever since. Also, many men have been unwilling to dedicate their lives to the priesthood and its vows of celibacy and service.
In a recent letter to parishioners, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said the shortage dominated discussion at his annual meeting with priests last month. And with fewer men entering the priesthood, the numbers will drop lower, he said. Ordinations to the priesthood have averaged about three each year for the past three decades, Caine said. This year only one candidate was ordained and he is in his 60s. Another 33 seminarians are preparing for the priesthood.
"The overarching issue is that we have to take a hard look at our priest numbers and what is coming down the pike as far as retirements," Caine said. "Our resources are not inexhaustible."
The archdiocese says it has no plans to close parishes, though officials are just beginning to evaluate the impact of the priest shortage. The results of the discussions could help O'Brien decide the fate of aging church campuses that no longer serve large congregations.
The reviews prove similar to the way church officials addressed the archdiocesan schools' declining enrollment and aging infrastructure. That study resulted in the closing of a dozen elementary schools and Cardinal Gibbons High School in June. Nearly 2,000 students were displaced and many did not return to a Catholic school this year.
The archbishop has assured parishioners that the decision process will be open, transparent and inclusive; many complained that the discussion that led to school closings was not public enough.
In other parts of the country, the nationwide shortage has led to church closings, particularly in urban areas. The St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese last week unveiled a plan to close at least seven churches and cluster others under one pastor.
"People here seem to understand these changes are necessary," said Dennis McGrath, director of communications for the diocese of about 800,000. "We are dealing with shifting demographics, declining attendance and, at least in the short term, fewer priests."
In Carrion's South Baltimore congregation and a nine-parish community in Western Maryland, the archdiocese says it has found a successful scheduling model.