Archdiocese calls on parishioners to ease burden on priests

Increased lay participation vital to ministry

January 22, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

With the decades-long decline in the number of priests reaching what church officials call a critical shortage, the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore is calling on parishioners to help conduct youth programs, minister to prisoners and take over other duties that have traditionally been performed by clergy.

Looking to ease demands on priests, the archdiocese has also been looking to consolidate Masses among lightly attended churches.

"This is a period of introspection for us, a time to look at what we can do better to serve the people of Baltimore," said Sean Caine, the spokesman for Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. "It will also prepare those who want to deepen their faith."

The steps mirror those taken in dioceses across the United States as the church copes with a dwindling and aging priesthood. They have imported more foreign-born clergy, welcomed Episcopal priests into the church, and have ordained more permanent deacons.

About 100 lay men and women, many of them already leaders in their parishes, will meet with O'Brien on Thursday at St. Joseph Church in Fullerton.

More than 300 others have attended two previous sessions on the issue, which were held earlier this month in Severn and Libertytown. O'Brien and his director of evangelization are using the gatherings to launch "Equip for Ministry," an effort to create a deeper culture of spirituality in parishes and schools.

Church leaders will focus on preparing the laity for involvement in worship, Catholic schools, outreach and youth ministry. Laity can also help by taking Communion to the sick, leading prayer services and conducting Bible studies.

After the initial meetings, the archdiocese will offer parishes and schools training opportunities to help implement the program. The first classes start March 14 and continue for about a year in the city and every county in the archdiocese. Classes, which will involve both education and practical applications, will be available online, on DVD and at several locations in an effort to make training convenient for participants.

The twofold goal of evangelization is to return more Catholics to the church and to encourage a broader participation in the liturgy by the laity, officials said.

The archdiocese counts more than 500,000 Catholics among its membership, but only about a third of them attend Mass regularly, a statistic that reflects a nationwide trend, Caine said. About one in three baptized Catholics leaves the church in adulthood.

"These are statistics that concern us greatly," Caine said.

Even with the decline in the number of parishioners, the demands on pastors can be daunting. Increased lay participation will help ease those burdens, particularly on aging priests.

While the number of American Catholics has remained fairly constant at about 22 percent of the population — helped in part by growing Hispanic immigration — the number of priests continues to decline. 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.

Fewer men are entering the priesthood. One priest was ordained last year in the archdiocese and only one is expected to be ordained this year, officials said. If the trend continues, there may be fewer than 100 priests to serve 153 parishes within the next decade.

"The laity is going to have to take an increased role in the church," Caine said.

Church leaders have already asked parishes to evaluate Mass schedules and consider cutting back, particularly if similar services are offered nearby. In Baltimore City alone, there are 50 parishes with many daily and weekend Mass times overlapping. In some areas, such as older city neighborhoods and rural regions, parishes have combined and condensed schedules.

The discussion runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday at St. Joseph, 8420 Belair Road.

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