Planning a Future with Fewer Priests
As Numbers Decline, Archdiocese Seeks Ideas from the Pews

By Tom Heinen
Journal Sentinal [Milwaukee Wisconsin]
August 24, 2003

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is about to ask its nearly 700,000 Catholics to help plan for a future where its already thinned corps of active priests is projected to decline 20% in the next five years and, more speculatively, 47% by 2015.

Educational inserts have begun appearing in parish bulletins, parish planning teams underwent training last week, and materials that include a pastoral letter by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan on crafting a new five-year plan will be mailed to the households of all registered Catholics in the 10-county area late this week.

The last round of planning in 1997 produced a dramatic wake-up call for people who thought warnings about a national priest shortage were as relevant as news reports about distant earthquakes.

There was a loss of more than 40 parishes, either through closures or mergers with other parishes. More priests began pastoring two or more parishes. The ranks of trained laypeople providing non-sacramental ministries grew.

And the Hollywood image of a Catholic Church with freshly ordained Father O'Malleys replenishing the ranks receded further into the past.

Changes are certain

No one is predicting large numbers of parish closings, or even many. But there will be changes in how ministry is provided and how parishes are run, church officials say.

And in the not too distant future, some parishes might have a Eucharistic prayer service instead of a Mass on some Sundays. Such services would be led by deacons or trained laypeople using previously consecrated hosts, which the Catholic Church teaches are the actual body of Christ rather than symbols.

Many of the archdiocese's current 218 parishes were buffered from major changes, partly because the aging corps of diocesan priests worked harder and retired priests helped out on weekends to make sure that Mass was available, said Jan Ruidl, a laywoman from Racine who serves on the seven-member Archdiocesan Planning Commission.

"There are certainly going to be big changes, and that's something we are going to have to be preparing people for," Ruidl said. "The average person may not believe that, because they haven't had it happen yet. The question is starting to become, 'There's nobody in the bullpen.'

"The biggest thing I see is the fear that their parish is going to be closed. The question I hear is, 'What are they going to do to us?' My response is, 'You have the opportunity to be open and creative and help us come to a solution that will work for you.' "

Options on the table

Noreen Welte, director of parish planning and a Planning Commission member, said parishes will be given six options to consider as models when they draft their recommendations in September and October. There's also a seventh option - coming up with some other creative solution.

Most options include greater reliance on trained laypeople who help provide a wide range of parish ministries and outreach to nursing homes and prisons. Getting more ordained deacons also is a factor. They can't say Mass, but they can preside at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

One model, for example, is having a single pastoral team with one priest serve three parishes. Each parish would maintain its own identity.

Another model is to have a trained parish director run the parish during the week, handling both pastoral and administrative duties. A priest would come in on weekends to say Mass and provide other sacramental ministry. There now are seven parishes with parish directors.

One option would be what took place in Fond du Lac, where a team that includes four priests serves six parishes that merged into Holy Family Parish.

"They are being asked to produce two things," Welte said. "One is, five years from now, how they envision their parishes being served by priests and lay ministers. And the other thing we're asking for feedback on is what services they rely on from the central offices of the archdiocese, so that, in the future, the central offices may be reorganized to help meet their needs."

Listening to laypeople

Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba, chairman of the Planning Commission, said Saturday that this round of planning - the third in 14 years - would give much more emphasis to the recommendations of laypeople in the parishes.

"We are not formulating a plan and then asking people to react to it," Sklba said. "We are asking parishes in clusters to make suggestions about their own areas, which we will then as a steering committee pull together, coordinate and propose for further discussion, change and implementation."

The overall goal, he said, is to ensure that parishes are vibrant communities where the Eucharist is present and accessible in its broadest sense - in the Mass as a celebration of Christ's transforming sacrifice, in the parish community as the living body of Christ, and beyond the walls of the church as Catholics live the Gospel's message in their daily lives.

Sklba would not rule out the possibility that a few parishes might be required to merge, but he said the expectation was that parishioners would come to that conclusion themselves if it is necessary.

"I don't enter this cycle with a presumption that there will be more mergers and closings, unless local folks see that some change has to be made and ask for help in doing it," Sklba said.

He cited a voluntary merger that took effect July 1 in Beaver Dam, where parishioners said they didn't need "one Polish, one Irish and one German parish anymore, which is why they merged into one and became St. Katharine Drexel Parish. It was at their initiative."

Sklba said the number of weekend Masses at parishes will continue to decline, reducing "Masses of convenience," but he would not predict whether some parishes might have no regular Sunday Mass.

"I'm convinced that in the very near future, in one way or another, some of our parishes will begin to experience no Mass on a Sunday morning, but some other kind of worship service that can be conducted by a layperson," said Father William Kohler, a commission member and the administrator in charge of priest placements.

Kohler said there might be some mergers, but said he does not expect many.

Working together

Parishes have been collaborating more since 1997, with some sharing staff positions and ministries. And more priests have been asked to pastor more than one parish.

"My message is to ask them to create ways that we can minister to the people in such a way that the priests don't kill themselves, don't get stressed out and make the problem even worse," said Kohler, who noted that the average age of active diocesan priests here is 57. "Remember, these are priests who are getting older and older. I don't want to make us sound like a bunch of old codgers, but you don't have the same energy that you did at the age of 35."

Stress over the need for more vocations is one reason why 163 area priests sent a letter last week to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urging optional celibacy, he added.

Father William Stanfield, a Planning Commission member and pastor of St. Matthew Church in Oak Creek, thinks that it will be more than five years before parishes that now have weekly Sunday Masses will have to experience some Sundays without a Mass. He sees greater collaboration among parishes.

"We've stretched priests about as far as we can to cover our ministry needs," Stanfield said. "We can't stretch any further, so now we need to make changes in terms of what services priests will provide, and other ways to provide services that priests have done."

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