By ELIZABETH HAMILTON
November 19, 2007
The Archdiocese of Hartford, anticipating a time when there might be only three priests left to serve all of West Hartford, is considering a plan that could dramatically alter the way people worship — pairing up the town's six Catholic churches.
The plan is similar to those carried out across the archdiocese already — at least 50 parishes have been merged or linked in the past decade, according to diocesan officials — but it would affect one of the state's more vibrant Catholic communities at a time when its parishes are growing, not shrinking.
The same cannot be said for the priest population in West Hartford, however. Of the nine priests assigned in town now, two are eligible for retirement and several more will be eligible in the coming years. This means it is conceivable that only three priests would remain to serve the six churches if the archdiocese couldn't find reinforcements.
"It's serious," said the Rev. George Couturier, who administers the archdiocese's restructuring committee. "It takes anywhere from four to eight years for a seminarian to be trained, so by 2009 we'd have to have a miracle if we wanted to replace all these priests."
The plan is raising concerns in West Hartford's Catholic community, with some even saying it is time for the Vatican to end the celibacy requirement for priests.
In the absence of major change, however, something must be done because the archdiocese expects to be down to six priests in West Hartford soon.
The proposed solution, which will be aired before the Catholic community tonight at St. Mark's, is to create three sets of linked parishes with a school in each set.
As the plan stands now, this means that St. Brigid Church would be linked with St. Helena Church, St. Thomas the Apostle would be linked with St. Mark the Evangelist, and St. Timothy's would be linked with St. Peter Claver. The churches would not only share priests, if the numbers dwindle dramatically, but other resources as well.
The potential for change is dramatic. If two churches must share one priest, that could lead to a reduced Mass schedule and potentially fewer opportunities for Catholics to take communion, which is the central point of their worship service. Even going down to one priest for each parish would have an impact on the number of Masses held weekly, officials said.
"It's going to dramatically change the face of how we worship, if it comes to that," said Jayne O'Donnell, director of religious education and a member of the parish council at St. Timothy's. "Only the priest can consecrate the Eucharist. We think that our priests have a responsibility to serve us by celebrating the Mass. We view that as a right."
Mary Kilian, a "cradle Catholic" and a member of St. Helena Church for 30 years, said she views the parish linkages as "inevitable."
"There's no fighting it," Kilian said. "We'll just have to do the best we can."
But Kilian acknowledged that the changes on the horizon have the potential to not only alter the way she worships, but the identity of each of the parishes because so much of that identity is wrapped up in the priest who leads the church.
"The priest was and still is the big decision maker," Kilian said. "The parish councils in our churches are advisory only. They can decide something and he can take it or leave it."
What is happening in West Hartford illuminates a problem that the Catholic Church has struggled for years, without much success, to solve — fewer and fewer men are entering the priesthood. The problem is so serious that church leaders have had to take drastic steps, closing churches and schools, or merging parishes across the nation.
In the Hartford Archdiocese alone, which encompasses Hartford, New Haven and Litchfield counties, another 29 priests will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, church officials estimate. This means that there could be roughly 200 priests left to serve 213 parishes.
The Rev. Michael Dolan, who was put in charge of recruitment four months ago, said he must ordain 10 new priests a year in order to staff the parishes the archdiocese operates now. This year, he expects to ordain only two men, and both are from Nigeria.
The archdiocese has a three-part plan to recruit more men to the priesthood, Dolan said. It involves reaching out to young men through campus ministry, older men who are looking for a more rewarding career, and "reverts" — Catholics who left the faith and then returned.
"Reverts tend to be very strong in their faith because they've already asked all the questions," Dolan said.
Dolan rejects the idea that the Catholic Church cannot solve the priest shortage without changing the rule that allows only celibate men to be ordained as priests, but it's a growing opinion among the laity, according to some church officials.
"If we were talking 15 years ago, I would say [that opinion] was unusual," said the Rev. Jim Leary, of St. Peter Claver Church. "Today, I would say it's common."
The parish council at St. Timothy's, for example, not only objected to the linkage plan in the letter it sent to the diocesan restructuring committee, it also strongly urged the archdiocese to seek a change to the celibacy rule, which the committee called "arbitrary."
"The idea that someone's gender or their desire to marry and have children should disqualify them from the priesthood just doesn't make sense in our current day and age," the council wrote.
"Our crisis could virtually disappear overnight by simply changing the policy around ordination," the council wrote. "A good first step might be reaching out to men who have left the priesthood for marriage. The additional step of opening the priesthood to both married and celibate men and women would bring new life and vitality to Catholic seminaries which have sat underutilized for far too many years."
The Rev. Henry Cody, pastor at St. Timothy's, echoed the views expressed by his parishioners, when asked about the priest shortage problem this past week.
"Our situation is getting rather desperate," Cody said, adding that unless the church is able to recruit more men to the priesthood, it might have to reconsider the rules for ordination.
Changing that policy is not within the control of any individual priest or even bishop, however — only the Vatican can do that, and diocesan officials don't see that decision on the horizon.
The priest shortage has been developing over the past 40 years, they said, and nothing the church has done has retarded it much.
Leary, who was ordained in 1968, said that when he was a student at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield in the 1960s, it was "jampacked." By the time he returned to the seminary for a teaching job in the early 1970s, Leary said, "enrollment was already dwindling."
The school eventually shut down and now holds diocesan offices, a conference center and housing for retired priests.
More changes are on the horizon. After the restructuring committee is finished in West Hartford, Couturier said, it will move on to Southington, which also has six churches, and New Hartford. The committee has already tackled the problem in Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Meriden and a slew of smaller communities, he said.
In Torrington, where four parishes now operate as a cluster and share four priests and one central office building, parishioners have 11 services to choose from on weekends, said the Rev. Christopher Tiano, who is pastor of the four parishes.
Mass is held three times a weekend at the two larger churches and two times a weekend at the smaller parishes, he said. Mass is also held daily at the two larger parishes. He attends every Mass on weekends, even if it is just to read the announcements and greet people after the service, Tiano said.
"You don't always have the choice of your own parish saying Mass [if the times aren't convenient]," Tiano said, adding that parishioners seem to enjoy the variety of attending different churches. "I think people fear the change, but once the change happens they find it's good for them because it provides more opportunities."
Letter to the Editor: Let Priests Marry
November 26, 2007
In regard to Courant articles about the combining of Roman Catholic parishes in West Hartford [Page 1, Nov. 19, "Town's Churches Might Pair Up; Connecticut section, Nov. 20, "Church Linkages OK'd"]:
It's a shame that this is necessary, and that other parishes in the archdiocese have even been closed. The reason given is the shortage of priests. If the hierarchy of the church would cease being so archaic, it might find a way to welcome back priests who left and married. There are groups of them waiting for this to occur.
Also, there is no God-given reason to prevent a married person from being ordained. How long will the hierarchy value mandatory celibacy above the right of the people of God to the celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments?
Marriage does not seem to interfere with the ability of Eastern Rite clergy to fulfill their priestly duties. Will it come down to six priests for all of Connecticut?