The Looming Crisis
The Priest Shortage Is the Elephant in the Catholic Living Room

By Tom Roberts
National Catholic Reporter, carried in Editor's Desk
October 17, 2003

It is changing the very nature of priesthood, of parishes, of church itself in ways that would have been unthinkable a short time ago. The changes will continue, unplanned and unplanned for, and laity will continue to fill the gaps, picking up ministerial functions, preparing liturgies, running the parishes themselves. Too often they will do these things never quite knowing whether the bishop fully approves of laity taking on new responsibilities or is merely appreciative of temporary help until the shortage crisis is over.

I had occasion over the summer to do a fair amount of travel during which I talked to a number of priests. I was surprised to hear so many of the same themes -- of frustration, isolation, alienation. Maybe I was talking to the wrong guys. That could always be the case.

Interestingly, I felt that in several instances the priests drove the conversation to those topics, to the struggles to stay on board in these trying times. These were not whiners or ardent reformers. But they are worried about the future of the church, its future as a eucharistic community, their futures as Catholic leaders. They are worried because they see huge problems looming, and no one is talking about it.

One priest told me he tried to take hope from the fact that his diocese was ordaining six priests last year. Then, he said, he sat and worked with the numbers -- with how many would be retiring, the increasing number of deaths and the number who were leaving each year and concluded, "It’s over." The diocese, he said, could ordain six a year into the foreseeable future and it wouldn’t make any difference. As Joe Feuerherd’s reporting in this issue shows, the church is not going to get ahead on this one.

The bishops as a group began talking about the priest shortage only three years ago. In a report they had commissioned, one priest put it well: "It’s true that the best kept secret is the shortage of priests. We have kept it from the laity. We cover it up in every way imaginable and pretend it doesn’t exist."

Foreign priests, no matter how much they might enrich a local Catholic scene, are not the answer. Nor are circuit riders, though they will have to do for now. Even the stop-gap lay option is not the answer -- not without a lot more thought and discussion about what we’re doing and how all of those options, and inevitably others can work together for the good of the local and the larger Catholic community.

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Here’s more on reader responses to my question of a few weeks ago about hope. Sheila Biernat, who attends St. Philip’s Church in Minneapolis, writes: "Hope is the thin thread that weaves in and out of daily miseries, life tragedies. Like an angel whisper, it slips through my soul, through my worries and assures me, ‘I care. You will make it. I have made you strong. You are a survivor.’ Later, when hope meets faith, the thread becomes heavier and stronger and I begin to believe the God-sent voice and his promises; and even later my hope meets love and I can look back and witness the heavy, resilient tapestry that God has been weaving and at this point I am ready to share his love and word with the world."


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