Churches Learning to Work with Fewer Priests

Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
April 5, 2004

DETROIT (AP) -- Holy Week is the busiest time of year for Christian clergy, but many churches are finding themselves with fewer people to handle the load.

The Archdiocese of Detroit's priestly ranks have declined by a third in the past 20 years. By June, 17 priests will have reached the retirement age of 70, but just nine new ones will have been ordained.

The problem is nationwide and experts say the Roman Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal has made the shortage worse. In the last two years, the Archdiocese of Detroit removed 20 priests from active assignments because of abuse allegations.

"There's no cliff that we walk over. It's just simply going to get worse and worse," said Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

A little more than a year ago, St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Dearborn Heights offered parishioners three masses a day during the week and six for their Sunday obligation.

Then a retired priest died, the associate pastor left and the pastor of 33 years was removed after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced.

Filling the void is a new pastor -- the Rev. Jeffrey Day, ordained in 1999 and one of the youngest archdiocesan priests.

Day, 31, runs the 2,000-family parish without an associate priest, celebrates most masses, every funeral, every wedding and every baptism. Weekend masses are down to four and weekday services have been cut to one or two.

"I'm pretty much consumed by the ministry of this parish," Day told the Detroit Free Press.

In the Detroit Archdiocese, the number of priests has declined to 701 -- including 120 retired or inactive priests -- from 1,021 two decades ago.

At Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, 37 men are studying for the priesthood, but only six are expected to be ordained over the next two years.

The average age of a diocesan priest is 59.

The Rev. Robert Silva, who heads the National Federation of Priests Councils in Chicago, said the shortage is "creating tremendous pressure" on older priests.

"They're saying their consciences are urging them to continue in their ministry," Silva said.

In Detroit, priests turning 70 discuss their options with Cardinal Adam Maida. Some opt to retire right away. Others stay in full-time parish work or scale back.

"We really don't force the guys. We let them decide," said Msgr. John Zenz, who handles priest assignments for the Detroit diocese. "Typically, we urge them to retire by age 75. After 75, it's a year-by-year extension."


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