Area Catholic Priests Discuss Issues Facing Their Parishes

By Karen Palmer
News Journal [Mansfield OH]
November 13, 2004

MANSFIELD -- The U.S. Catholic population is growing as the number of priests and religious brothers and sisters serving them declines. This summer, the Catholic News Service reported the country's Catholics numbered 67,259,768 at the start of 2004, an increase of some 850,000 over the number reported last year.

As they grapple with changing demographics and a spiritual malaise that's not limited to the Catholic Church, area Catholic priests talked about issues facing their parishes.

"The sex abuse crisis of two years ago is leaving a wide wake," the Rev. Herb Weber of Mansfield's St. Peter's Church said.

"I think the first wave was one of shock, anger, distrust -- and I want to say I believe that was rightly so. I think we're in the second wave right now ... where some people simply aren't taking the church too seriously."

Economics affects parish vitality, according to the Rev. Nick Cunningham of Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Shelby. The 50-year-old priest also oversees Sacred Heart Parish at Bethlehem.

As area factories close, young families move to where the jobs are, Cunningham said.

"A lot of strong parishes are losing their younger base, and I don't think it's that they're not religious. It is just that they're moving," the Shelby priest said.

"I also think that certainly there are many issues facing the Catholic Church today, not the least of which is the shortage of priests. That's why the diocese is undergoing that study of realigning parishes, closing par- ishes, to make better use of our manpower," Cunningham said.

In the past two years, Mass attendance has dropped off at Shelby and gone up at Bethlehem, he noted.

"I have no idea what the explanation for that is," he added.

Chalk up change in the Catholic Church to shifting demographics as well as disillusionment, according to Weber.

"Many of our churches were built as neighborhood churches or as ethnic churches," said the 56-year-old priest. "A lot of those churches are the ones being closed because people are moving or because you don't have ethnic neighborhoods anymore."

Weber said the church's major challenge is "engaging people -- going from passive membership or semi-active membership to full membership." He said full engagement is more than attending Sunday Mass.

Cunningham added, "I think it's going to be a struggle for some years ... I think right now there's a lot of negativity, and nobody wants to join what they see as a losing team ... I really commend the guys who are in seminary today because it's got to be tough."


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