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American Catholic Church Faces Shortage of Clergy - 2002-04-07


The current pedophilia scandal is the latest and probably the gravest of several issues that have been plaguing the American Catholic Church in recent years. The institution is faced with a severe and growing shortage of ordained men. Zlatica Hoke looks into what the American Catholic Church is doing to reverse the trend.

St. Anselm's Abbey is a quiet oasis next to a busy street in Northeast Washington DC. Located on a hillside overlooking the Catholic University, it has been home to a Benedictine monastery and church for almost eighty years and to a school for boys, aged twelve to eighteen, for sixty years. Abbot Aiden Shea has spent forty-four years of his life here. "A year after leaving the military, I entered the monastery," he says.

Seventeen monks at the abbey meet five times a day for prayers. They spend the rest of the day teaching at St. Anselm's Abbey School and at the Catholic University. Most of them are ordained as priests, so they alternate in leading the Mass liturgies. Abbot Aiden says they are often invited to help in the neighboring parishes. "We don't have a parish ourselves, but we help out in several parishes and are chaplains in some schools. A number of us give retreats," he says. "Many here are spiritual directors. So there's quite a variety, so to speak, of ministries."

The small Benedictine monastery has never had more than 40 monks. But Abbot Aiden says the numbers started to decline in the 1960-s. The loss of monks is reflected in St. Anselm's Abbey School faculty profile. "When it opened in 1942, I think, there was one layman who was in charge of physical education and there was a school secretary who was a woman," he says. "Otherwise, all the faculty were monks and as the numbers (of monks) diminished, then the number of monks in the school diminished also."

Today, fewer than one third of the school faculty are monks. All other teachers and administrative personnel are lay people.

The situation in Washington's Benedictine abbey reflects the state of Catholic communities throughout the United States. While the number of Catholics in the nation grew from about 40 million in 1960 to more than 60 million in 2001, the number of ordained priests steadily declined.

In 1965, there were about 58,000 ordained priests; last year there were about 46,000 . (END OPT)

The number of monks and nuns has also declined. The number of young men studying to be priests at Catholic seminaries across America has dropped from about 18,000 in the 1960s to fewer than 4,000 last year.

Edward Burns is the executive director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in the nation's capital. He says the shortage of clergy is felt especially hard in the west and mid-west. "It's not to say that it's not felt here in the East, because it's felt all over," he says.

The official Catholic Church figures show that more than a quarter of American parishes have no resident priests. Many churches have had to reduce the number of Masses per day. Some parishes have had to close down or merge with others.

And many services once performed by priests, such as baptizing, counseling and teaching religion are now delegated to deacons [Lower order than priests, who are ordained to officiate at some sacraments such as baptisms and weddings, but cannot celebrate the Mass; they can be married], lay ministers and church associates. Some churches, notably in Florida, have embraced clergy from countries that have had a surplus of priests. For many years it has been Ireland, but in recent years, that country too, as well as the rest of Europe, has been faced with a shortage of Catholic vocations.

But Edward Burns says in many countries, especially in Asia and Africa, there has been an increase of ordained priests and seminarians. Father Burns says the shortage of priestly vocations in this country is part of a larger trend. "It was on the front page of the Washington Post a couple of years ago that marriage is at an all-time low," he says.

Edward Burns believes there is a general commitment crisis in the American society. According to Father Burns, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian churches in America are also experiencing a declining number of ministers and the number of rabbinical students is also in decline.

He says many young Americans today grow up in an affluent society with a wide choice of career and other opportunities. While many are willing to serve the church for some time or in some capacity, few are willing to commit to a lifetime of self-denial and serving others. The abbot of St. Anselm's Abbey says even fewer are willing to take the vow of chastity, obedience and stability, which his order requires. "The vow of stability means, at least on the first level, that we will be in this monastery until we die. We are not ever transferred," he says. "And that is very, very daunting to many young people because they are so used to change and mobility. It is very sobering for them to wander around here [the abbey grounds] and think that they are going to live here until they die."

The American Catholic Church is working hard on reversing the shrinking trend of its ranks. Director of Vocations for the church, Edward Burns, says one way is asking newly ordained priests and seminarians to inspire other young men with their personal stories. "We are preparing for World Youth Day that's coming up in July. It will take place in Toronto [Canada]. And a great number of young people will be in Toronto, a great number of young people from the United States will be participating. We are hoping to have an effective way of challenging young men to consider diocesan priesthood," he says.

In addition to that, says Father Burns, the Catholic Church has been using contemporary methods to invite young men to consider the priesthood: radio and TV advertisements, the Internet, posters and even roadside billboards.

But a growing number of Americans feel that despite all the advertising, or importing priests from other countries, the increasing clergy shortage will not be halted. In a recent poll of lay Catholics, almost three-quarters said they were willing to expand ordination to married men, former priests and women. A growing number of Catholic priests have expressed the same sentiments, including William Byron, the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Northwest Washington DC. "We have become very accustomed to having female physicians, we are accustomed to having female chief-executive-officers of corporations, why shouldn't we just as easily become accustomed to having female priests," he says. "I don't see any reason why we couldn't do that."

But Father Byron says he does not expect any major changes in the church any time soon. "This is an institution that's 2,000-years-old and change has to come gradually."

Many Americans feel, however, that the Catholic Church will be forced to change at least some of its centuries-old policies sooner rather than later. The current clergy in the nation is getting old, there are more priests aged 90 and over, than those under thirty. Father Byron says for each five or six new priests ordained in a year, the church might bury or retire ten or twelve. He says there is no shortage of Catholics who want to serve the church, but there are roadblocks for many of those who would like to be ordained.

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