Local Catholic Churches Adjusting to Priest Shortage

By MASSIE RITSCH / Los Angeles Times / November 28, 1998

The students at St. John's Seminary still immerse themselves in the letters of Paul and the scriptures that priests in training have studied for centuries.

But facing a new reality in the Roman Catholic Church--that there are fewer and fewer priests each year--these students also are learning new ways to run a parish. Today's pastor "is not the one-man band playing all the instruments," said Msgr. Jeremiah McCarthy, the seminary's rector. Rather, a parish's ordained leader is like a conductor, and his orchestra is increasingly made up of laypeople. That role change has meant adjustments at the seminary that trains all new priests for Ventura, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties and much of the Southwest. All seminarians, for example, must learn a second language. And veteran priests are having to adjust as well.

In his 10 years as pastor at Padre Serra Parish in Camarillo, Father Liam Kidney has seen his parish grow from 800 to 2,300 families. Yet he has remained its only full-time priest.

To run his burgeoning parish, Kidney employs several laypeople in full-time jobs that would have previously been the responsibilities of associate pastors--jobs such as directing Sunday school or heading the youth group.

Other duties--such as reading during services or administering the Eucharist--are often performed by parishioners.

"In our parish community, the result is that we have 600 laypeople involved in volunteer ministry to some degree," Kidney said.

And the parishioners enjoy the opportunities that the priest shortage has presented for the non-ordained, said John Perko, who has worked as a lector, Eucharistic minister and in several other capacities at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ojai.
"It makes people more a part of their church," Perko said Wednesday, while serving a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless and poor in Ventura.

The problems posed by a dwindling priesthood were articulated recently by Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Los Angeles archdiocese, which oversees 287 parishes in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The nation's most populous archdiocese, it embraces almost 4 million Catholics.

In a letter last month, Mahony encouraged Catholics to take on more parish duties, accept the redistribution of priests and pray for more seminary graduates.

"Our priests are stretched to the breaking point, and we cannot ask them to do even more to fill these gaps," Mahony said.

The priest shortage has not hit the L.A. archdiocese as hard as it has elsewhere. Every church in the archdiocese has at least one priest, Kidney said.

And, McCarthy added, there is little chance that any local parishes will be combined, which has been done elsewhere.

What might happen in this area is that associate pastors could be reassigned from their current parishes to larger congregations. Those moves would be decided by the archdiocese in Los Angeles.

The clergy shortage is not unique to Catholicism. McCarthy, who sits on a board that accredits seminaries of all denominations, said all religions in America face a similar problem.

But the dearth has been especially evident--and difficult to combat--in the Catholic church. Whether it is the requirement that all priests be male, or that they remain celibate, or that they lead a relatively Spartan lifestyle, something is deterring men from entering religious orders.

That has meant that, as priests retire or transfer to other parishes, there are fewer new priests to replace them. Last spring, St. John's Seminary produced 14 men for ordination. In coming years, McCarthy expects to graduate classes of just five.
And larger classes will be needed to replenish the priesthood's aging ranks. According to church statistics, the average age of priests in the United States is 58, and 24% of priests in the L.A. archdiocese are over 70, the average age of retirement.

"We're growing older . . . and that's becoming very obvious," said the San Buenaventura Mission's Msgr. Patrick O'Brien, who is in his late 60s.
The mission has two full-time priests, but could support another, O'Brien said. "A bilingual young priest here now would be just wonderful," he said.

For years, congregations have been asked to pray for more young men to receive the call to the priesthood. But God, O'Brien said, "doesn't do exactly what we want him to always."