Monday, September 08, 2008

Catholic priests in massive demand

More glimpses into the priestless future if the Catholic Church stays on its present course...

Virginia's Catholic priests are being stretched thin as the number of priests declines and the number of parishioners increases.

By Rob Johnson
The Roanoke Times
September 8, 2008

For a clergyman so in demand, helping fulfill the spiritual needs of more than 1,000 families in three Catholic churches, the Rev. Nixon Negparanon spends a lot of time alone.

His Sundays sometimes begin on Saturday night, driving 30 miles from his home parish at Our Lady of Nazareth Catholic Church in Southwest Roanoke County to the modest wood frame house in Rocky Mount that serves as the rectory for Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.

On such an evening in late August, the 34-year-old Negparanon cooked his Sunday lunch in solitude -- reheating it nearly 18 hours later during a brief break before his 26-mile commute to Resurrection Catholic Church in Moneta for a baptism.

"I must be prepared ahead to have time to eat. It is the only way," said the native of the Philippines. After the baptism, he led Resurrection's Mass at 4 p.m.

Some Sundays are longer -- if there are ill parishioners to be visited in the Smith Mountain Lake area, for instance. Only then does Negparanon settle back into the church-furnished Toyota Camry and complete the final 37-mile leg of his circuit.

With ministerial tasks stretching across three counties, Negparanon and his brisk Sundays underscore the effects of the Roman Catholic Church's growing shortage of priests in the United States. Parishes must increasingly share pastors, more and more of whom must be imported from overseas on temporary assignment. Soon, some Southwest Virginia parishes may be faced with holding services without a priest.

"I am on loan, you might say," said Negparanon of his scheduled three-year stint in Virginia. Ironically, having grown up in a nation in which Roman Catholic priests from the U.S. and Europe led in spreading their denomination, Negparanon now views himself as a missionary: "You Americans planted the seed of faith in my country. Now it's payback time."

But the deficit of priests is deepening at a time when the number of Catholic congregants is on the increase. Among the 152 Virginia churches in the Diocese of Richmond -- covering most of the state but excluding populous Northern Virginia -- the number of active priests fell by 33 percent between 1975 and 2005, to 158. Meanwhile, in a part of the South where Baptists and other Protestant denominations prevail, the ranks of Catholics in the diocese more than doubled to 223,595. In Western Virginia, Catholic parishes in Blacksburg and Moneta, in particular, are showing vibrant growth.

More troubling than keeping up with growth, there's far less help coming through the priest-training pipeline: The diocese had only 16 men attending seminaries in 2005, fewer than one-third of the seminarians in school 30 years earlier.

Catholic officials say the paucity of pastors has several causes, including the requirement that priests maintain celibacy. But that tradition is centuries old and existed during times when the ranks of Catholic clergy were robust. Other factors cited include decades of growth in the economy that increase secular career options and increasing opportunities for college scholarships and loans that vie for the attention of potential seminary students. Further, highly publicized child sex abuse scandals involving priests, which have prompted apologies from Pope Benedict XVI, have eroded the prestige of the priesthood, church officials acknowledge.

Nearly half of the Richmond diocese's parishes share pastors. Some priests such as Negparanon, and Monsignor Joseph Lehman, the pastor at Our Lady of Nazareth, split their time among as many as four churches. Negparanon and Lehman, responsible for three parishes, take turns in making the weekly commutes to Rocky Mount and Moneta.

"They look tired. You can see the drain on their faces," said Lori Ghiringhelli, a senior member of the laity at Francis of Assisi -- a 260-family parish founded in 1983 that has never had a priest all its own. Yet she said the visiting clerics never let their fatigue show during Mass: "They give everything they have."

But some parishes may soon have to give up some visits from of the priests and the worship services that they lead. Diocese officials have ordered local planning committees to formulate a new plan -- scheduled to be unveiled in October -- that will likely adjust the current priest-sharing arrangements in Virginia.

The plan could result in the elimination of some weekday Masses and cutting back on Sunday services at a few churches that have more than one Mass on Sunday, according to the Rev. Remi Sojka, chairman of the planning committee for 13 Roanoke-area parishes. Sojka is also the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Salem.

Another possible result of the new plan, said Sojka, is that more services might be held without the presence of a priest. In such cases, the worship, which by canon law can't include all the rites of a full Mass, would usually be led by the likes of an ordained deacon, or someone such as Chris Barrett, a seminary-trained employee of the diocese who is currently Resurrection Catholic Church's pastoral coordinator. His position allows him to perform many of the services that usually fall to a priest, such as presiding over a funeral.

"I can do just about everything except celebrate Mass," he said, partly because he isn't authorized to consecrate the communal bread and wine. Also, Barrett said, "I can't preach."

But Sojka said some congregants tend to rely too heavily on priests to lead the liturgy and sermonize. For example, he said, trained laymen are authorized to offer a message, called a "theological reflection," during a worship service.

"They can be just as good as a sermon by a priest," he said.

Still, the lack of a priest in Catholic worship detracts from the traditional atmosphere that is symbolic of the denomination's very core and critical to its identity.

"Only a priest can give the long, beautiful Eucharistic prayer. Without the priest, something special is lost," said Gerald McDermott, professor of religion at Roanoke College, who was raised Catholic but is now an Episcopalian.

Barrett, who once planned on joining the priesthood, completed six years of Catholic seminary study but changed his mind. "I met the woman who would become my wife, so that was that," he said.

He said that although his nonordained position permits him to fulfill many theological requirements, he can't replace the intangible value of a priest: "There's a unique intensity about a priest-led Mass."

The presence of Negparanon at the Sunday afternoon baptism of Alexander Kazmer in Resurrection Catholic's sanctuary has an iconic quality. Friends and family gather about the priest, who wears a white vestment as prescribed for the ceremony. The priest and the child have both come far for this moment. Alexander, born in Russia, is the adopted son of Paul and Janet Kazmer, who regularly attend Resurrection Catholic. Thus Moneta's newest Catholic, from across the Atlantic Ocean, is welcomed to the faith by a missionary from the other side of the Pacific. Said Negparanon after the baptism: "This is why I came here."

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