Saturday, November 10, 2007

Catholic Church faces priest shortage

By Tony Castro, Staff Writer
L.A. Daily News
11/10/2007 12:18:46 AM PST

On a recent Sunday, the Rev. Robert J. McNamara of St. Bernardine of Siena Parish in Woodland Hills found himself baptizing four babies - all boys - and quipped that perhaps they would all grow up to be priests.

"The joke bombed," McNamara recalls. "The parents looked at me stone-faced. I even tried the joke a second time. It bombed a second time."

But it is no laughing matter in the Roman Catholic Church, which today finds itself with an all-time shortage of priests - so much so that many dioceses in the country are looking to Latin America to recruit seminarians.

"We, unfortunately, are typical of the trouble the church is having in recruiting men for the priesthood," said the Rev. Jim Forsen, who was ordained 28 years ago and is now vocations director for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Forsen makes the rounds of parishes, speaking during the homily about the joys of a religious vocation with the charisma befitting a college football recruiter.

At St. John Eudes Church in Chatsworth, for instance, he summoned all the children at the Mass to the altar and asked who among them wanted to be a lawyer, a dentist, a firefighter, a teacher, a doctor or a veterinarian.

Children eagerly raised their hands at each profession.

"How many of you want to be a priest?" Forsen finally asked.

He was greeted with a round of nervous giggles and laughter - but no hands.

He then prodded the altar boys. Still no takers.

"Don't you want to be a priest?" he asked one of the boys who shrugged. "Sure? Maybe? No way?"

Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the country, has fewer than 400 diocesan priests to minister to more than 4.3million Catholics, according to its Web site.

In the next five years, the San Fernando Region of the diocese, much of which is made up of the San Fernando Valley, will have an estimated 40percent fewer pastors than it does today.

At St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, the seminary for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, only 45 of the 92 seminarians are earmarked as future priests for this archdiocese, which encompasses L.A., Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

"For almost all men who are considering the priesthood," Forsen is quick to acknowledge, "the main difficulty is celibacy."

But that's only one of the issues for the priest shortage. Across the country, religions that don't require celibacy are experiencing a shortage, as well.

Jewish synagogues and Protestant churches are reporting similar problems in recruiting rabbis and ministers. Some Episcopal and Presbyterian churches have a clergy shortage, and some congregations of Reform Judaism and the modern Orthodox wing of Judaism are without full-time rabbis.

For Protestant denominations, the declining clergy population has been blamed on the attraction of more lucrative careers in the private economy as well as retirements. For Jews, until a few years ago there were more rabbis than congregations, and officials say recruitment was not emphasized, causing their shortage.

But the Byzantine rite Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which allow their priests to be married before ordination, get plenty of vocations.

For the Roman Catholic Church, however, the clergy number across the country has been falling some 26percent since 1980, according to reports.

The archdioceses of Omaha and Atlanta, each of which serves about 250,000 Catholics, average around seven vocations a year each. In 1999, the Los Angeles Archdiocese recruited three men for the priesthood. Since then, the number has varied from none in 2001 to six in 2000 and 2004.

St. John's ordained nine seminarians in September, five of whom were assigned to Los Angeles.

According to a study by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, celibacy ranks as the main reason for the dwindling numbers of priests, along with the attraction of successful, private lives.

"Our culture also places an emphasis on living a full, active sexual life; the priesthood calls one to chaste celibacy," Forsen said.

"The priesthood is, as it always has been, countercultural - not anti-cultural but clearly countercultural. The more countercultural our parishes and families become, the more likely it is that young people will want to live committed countercultural lives as priests and religious."

Lost in concerns over the priest shortage and the reasons behind it is the belief that the priesthood is a calling from God.

"Let us at least begin to see it as a possibility that God may be calling some of the young people we know to serve him as a priest or sister," McNamara wrote in his church's Sunday bulletin about his recent experience with parents who didn't want their infants growing up to become priests.

But Forsen says the challenge the church faces is connecting with youngsters. He tells the story about a high school principal who cautioned him about reaching out to her students for vocations.

"Good luck, Father. You priests do not live in the imagination of the young," the principal told Forsen. "They dream about being astronauts, or professional ballplayers, or rock stars, or even video-game designers.

"But they don't dream about being priests. You're not even on their radar."

Possible solutions, Forsen says, include taking steps to make Catholic life in general, and priestly and religious life in particular, attractive and spotlighting vocations as priorities - undoubtedly made more difficult in the wake of the clergy sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the church.

"A lot of people see only the sacrifices that go into the priesthood - the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience," he said. "There are people who ask, `How can you be a priest?' And to them I say, `How can you be married?' My point is that when you love, there is no sacrifice at all.

"It's the same with a priest. I feel that as a priest, I am trying to change the world for the good, and I am doing it for the same reason as people who are married. You are doing it for your kids."

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