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US Catholic Priest Shortage Causing Church Closings - 2002-09-14

In the United States, Roman Catholics face a shortage of priests so severe that many churches are closing. The shortage began long before the current sex abuse scandal and, in time, may have a deeper impact on the church's spiritual life. Already, the dwindling priesthood has forced church leaders to accept dramatic changes - including a greater role for lay-people, and more authority for women. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann has this profile of the Diocese of Ogdensburg, in northern New York.

It's 10:00 a.m. on a gray Sunday morning. At St. Francis Solanus church, in Harrisville, Father Fay Ager has just finished his first mass of the day.

"Stay dry, it's wet outside. Did you bring your umbrella?"

As they stream past him, the people seem anxious and a little shy. Father Ager is new here. He embraces whole families, trying to put people at ease. But the crowd is big and time is tight. A few minutes later, he's hurrying into the vestry, hanging up his bright green robes, glancing at his watch. We have another mass at 10:30, so we have about a half hour, but we'll get there," he says.

Father Ager was sent here five weeks ago, to care for two rural churches - this one in Harrisville and a second parish in Star Lake, a half-hour's drive away. "That is probably the source of the greatest frustration, being split between two parishes," he says. "So you can only get so close to the people for example in Harrisville, because you only see them a few days a week. So it's hard…it's hard." Northern New York is a mix of farm country and mill towns. Priests here are more than religious leaders. They're counselors and coaches and best friends. They're also in short supply. Since 1950, the number of Roman Catholics in the United States has grown by more than thirty million. But the number of priests has remained roughly the same and in many rural and inner-city dioceses, their ranks are dwindling fast.

The diocese of Ogdensburg lost half its priests in the last 30 years. The recent sex abuse scandal made matters worse. This diocese dismissed four sorely needed priests following allegations of sexual misconduct. Sister Jennifer Votraw, head of planning, says "a difficult time in our history has now become a very painful time, as well. In many cases, the priests were well loved and they're mourning their loss - and they're also mourning that it had to be a loss for this reason. I mean, it's a double whammy."

To ease the problem, the American Church pushed back the retirement age to 75. But even so, 10 - 12 more priests will step down in the next decade, without being replaced. That means more churches will share pastors. And it means that many churches will close their doors.

When the Diocese of Ogdensburg reassigned Father Ager, officials here also cancelled masses permanently at four churches in neighboring villages.

This is Newton Falls, just up the road from Star Lake. It's a struggling mill town, but St. Anthony of Padua's is a modern, yellow-brick church. For a month, the building has sat quiet, the windows dark.

"Oh, I think it was a pretty important part of people's lives, that church was. My son served there and when this closed," he said. "I'm not going to church anymore," says Nicki Grammo, who grew up here. She and her family went to mass every week.

Grammo: "I'm angry that it happened. It's just too bad that more people don't want to enter the priesthood, because we desperately need them.
Reporter: "You talked about your son and his interest in the church. Would you like to see him become a priest?"
Grammo: "I would be comfortable with it if that's what he chose to do."

Since 1965, the number of young men studying for the priesthood has dropped by 50 percent. Last year, the Diocese of Ogdensburg closed its seminary - citing a lack of students. This trend began long before allegations of sexual abuse by priests became public.

But Brandon Olley, 14, a parishioner in Harrisville, says the recent scandal raises new questions for boys considering the priesthood. "I think it's something that every Catholic boy should think about. But I'm kind of disappointed in all the priests, of what they've been doing," he says.

"Lord, I love your commands, Lord I love your commands. We know that all things work for good…"

The priest shortage has already forced America's Roman Catholics to accept many changes, a revolution driven not by ideology but by necessity. Lay-people and women are taking a more central role in the church, administering parishes and handling church finances. They're conducting baptisms and marriages, even offering spiritual counseling. For many worshippers, the main point of contact in the church is no longer a priest.

It's a person like Dotty Night, lay-minister at St. Francis Solanus in Harrisville. "The bishop has said before that he loves the people of Harrisville and maybe he feels that we are capable of doing for him because he loves us so," she says.

When Ms. Night was a child, girls weren't allowed to serve on the altar. Now, she assists with the evening mass on Saturday nights, reading from the Bible, and helping Father Ager as he offers the sacrament. For many of her friends, this new look of the church is frightening, but she says there's no turning back. "I'm hearing it at coffee, I'm hearing it at the beauty parlor. The alternative would be no priest. I think we would be better off to just settle down and just accept what we must face," she says.

Priests, too, are struggling with changes that many believe are inevitable. But some, like Father Ager, see the situation as a positive step… a chance to deepen their spiritual relationship with women and to offer lay people a richer sense of connection to their religious tradition.