O Father, Where Art Thou?

As the number of parishes without resident priests increases every year, Catholics are coping with surprising stand-ins and creative solutions.

THE CORNERSTONES OF ST. AUGUSTINE PARISH IN REPUBLIC, MICHIGAN are round, flaky pie crust pockets crammed with beef, pork, potatoes, and other vegetables. Monthly sales of pasties (pronounced pass-tees), as the trademark Upper Peninsula culinary creations are called, fund operating costs at this 60-household parish that has been without a resident priest for 20 years.

Franciscan Sister Margey Schmelzle, pastoral coordinator at St. Augustine and its neighboring parish, Sacred Heart, works hard to ensure parishioners are physically and spiritually well fed. But while there are pasties-a-plenty in this rural former mining town, priests are in short supply. At times Schmelzle has called seven different priests before securing a presider for weekend Mass. She must schedule priests for Christmas Masses and holy days months in advance, otherwise risk an empty altar.

"We had a priest shortage up here way before other people did," she says crisply and matter-of-factly. "The shortage has hit."

At first glance, one might pity St. Augustine Parish and its 3,000 companion "priestless parishes" that stretch from Montana to Mississippi, most heavily concentrated in the rural South and Midwest. After all, priests, and consequently sacraments like the Eucharist and Anointing can be hard to come by when the nearest priest lives 35 miles away. A closer look at priestless parishes, however, reveals that while these parishes are low on priests they are high on community, volunteer participation, and competent, professional lay leadership. While questions of future access to sacraments and the meaning of Eucharist loom large, the loyalty of parishioners and the industriousness of their lay administrators keep these cohesive, faith-filled parishes alive.

How did we get here?
The number of priests, both diocesan and religious, has steadily declined since the 1970s, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). The priest shortage made major headlines in 1993 with the publication of Full Pews and Empty Altars (University of Wisconsin Press) by researchers Richard Schoenherr and Lawrence Young. In this highly-publicized study, Schoenherr and Young presented some alarming statistics: By 2005, the number of active diocesan priests in the U.S. would plummet to 21,000, which is 40 percent fewer than in 1965.

An October 2003 article in the National Catholic Reporter makes an even more ominous claim: "Death, retirement, and resignation have already reduced the clerical ranks to that number two years ahead of Schoenherr and Young's predictions."

Proposed solutions to the priest shortage are many and varied. Some suggest optional celibacy for priests or an alteration of ordination requirements. Others maintain that vocation directors must simply work harder to recruit future clergy. The debate simmers in Catholic circles, and a pastoral quick fix remains elusive. Meanwhile, the fact remains that in the United States 16 percent of parishes are already without resident priests.

I know everyone here
Close-knit. Warm. Family-oriented. Supportive. Parishes without resident priests, the majority of them small and rural, prize community. "Everybody knows everybody pretty much, and we tend to take care of each other pretty well," says Mike Denton, parishioner at St. Joseph in Big Timber, Montana, a parish of 75 households located in a former ranching and sheep town.

What's next?

U.S. parishes with resident priests soon may be an exception rather than the norm. So what does this mean for your parish's future? It depends on where you live. According to a CARA study based on 2002 data, 84 percent of U.S. parishes are run by a resident priest. The Midwest has the lowest percentages of parishes with resident priests, at 76 percent. The South and West have comparable numbers, with 88 percent and 87 percent of parishes housing resident priests. The Northeast, with 90.9 percent clergy-run parishes, has the highest percentage of resident priests.

Many solutions to the priest shortage have been proposed, including recruitment of more foreign-born priests and parish closure. Ruth Wallace, professor emeritus of sociology at George Washington University, says "insourcing" foreign priests is not a viable solution. "You're impoverishing that priest's own country by taking him away," she said. "It's not just an issue of him not being able to speak the language." Wallace, author of They Call Him Pastor (Paulist Press) and They Call Her Pastor (State University of New York Press), two national studies of parishes without a resident priest, says that the bishop will play a vital role in determining parish futures.

According to Wallace, canon law allows a bishop to appoint a layperson or deacon to run a parish if there is a shortage of priests in the diocese, but not all bishops have made use of this provision, forcing the closure of parishes. "If bishops use this canon, they can keep parishes open," she said.

Though the effects of the priest shortage have been felt most acutely in rural areas, pastors of suburban parishes know that soon they will be affected. Msgr. Richard Bellow, pastor of St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, knows that the seven weekend Masses his 3,400-family parish enjoys may soon be endangered. "Most bishops in other dioceses are asking priests to justify every Mass they have," he said. "Someday it will come to that here."

Father Lawrence Mierenfeld, pastor of Incarnation Catholic Church in Centerville, Ohio, a 3,800-family parish, said thus far, parishioners have not felt the effects of the priest shortage beyond the struggle to understand a foreign-born priest's accent. "We may be one of the last ones hit," he said. "But eventually people are going to have to realize that they're going to have to drive more than five minutes to Mass, and that Mass is not going to be offered every hour on the hour."

Catholic University of America sociology professor Dean Hoge speculates that priests who tire of "circuit-rider" ministry eventually will voice their displeasure with travel from parish to parish. "Priests find this way of life very unsatisfying," says Hoge. "It's just a matter of time before they call for relief. Priests are not rebellious by nature, but they may voice their concerns through letters or petitions."

Carol McAdory of Sacred Heart Parish in Louisville, Mississippi, a town with a population of 7,000, shares similar sentiments. "We all seem to work together. I've had cancer and a grandson who went blind, and the church was very supportive through it all."

Parishioners in these priestless parishes, whether in Michigan or Mississippi, work hard to share support and fellowship with one another and also to facilitate the day-to-day operations in a parish. Volunteers direct religious education programs, bring Communion to the sick and homebound, and provide maintenance services. They also serve as eucharistic ministers, lectors, and music ministers. In parishes comprised of such small numbers, participation is of utmost importance.

Virginia Stillwell, author of Priestless Parishes (Ave Maria Press), offers her observations based on an in-depth study of 11 of these parishes across the nation: "Participation in a community seems to increase under a lay parish leader in response to this external challenge [of not having a resident priest]. People seemed to be more willing to come forward and share their opinions and collaborate."

Inviting people to come forward is the ideal, according to Sister Virginia Schwartz, O.S.M., parish director at St. Ann Parish in Cable, a town where, according to Schwartz, "You wouldn't think of locking your car door when you go to the grocery store." The resort town is 45 miles from Lake Superior.

"We empower people to assume responsibility for their own parish family church," Schwartz says.

St. Ann parishioner Charles Bowman agrees. "We have many active committees, and we get things done. But we get things done by consensus."

Jane Kendall, a newcomer to Sacred Heart Parish in Champion, Michigan, a parish of 90 households 10 miles from St. Augustine in Republic, has gotten more involved than she ever thought she would. "I am the secretary of the parish council, and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would do anything like that," she says. Priestless parishes, according to their parishioners, are not only places where everyone knows everyone's name. They are places where everyone has a job to do.

Take me to your leader
Stepping up to the plate to lead these faith communities are competent and educated women and men, lay and religious. Their titles are many and varied, depending on the diocese in which they are employed. Whether they are called parish life coordinators, pastoral administrators, or pastoral directors, their job description is the same: pastoral jack-of-all-trades. They visit the sick and homebound, calling a priest when the sacraments of Anointing or Reconciliation are necessary. They carry out various liturgical responsibilities, direct religious education programs, facilitate marriage and Baptism preparation, and oversee the daily administrative tasks of the parish.

"I have many financial duties," says Schmelzle. "I have no secretary and no janitor. I write the bulletin every week."

Professional lay leaders in priestless parishes face many challenges, but they name administrative and financial responsibilities as their primary headache. "I am not a business person, and I am not a secretary," says Barbara Sturbaun, pastoral administrator of Sacred Heart and St. Therese Parishes in Louisville and Kosciusko, Mississippi. Sturbaun, who holds a master's degree in theological studies and a doctorate in zoology, says: "I do these things, but they're the least likable part of my job. I do things much more slowly than I would if I were a business."

For Tom Schleder, pastoral administrator at St. Joseph Parish in Montana, financial responsibilities include decisions that directly affect his own financial livelihood.

"We have had a lot of struggles maintaining financial stability and viability, like being able to pay me a salary and retirement benefits," says Schleder, who has a master of divinity degree. "I have had to hold my own paycheck for several weeks because I had to pay parish bills first. I have also had to dip into parish savings, which I don't like to do."

Adjustment issues
In addition to administrative and financial headaches, lay parish administrators and those they lead face other unique challenges. Denton, whose Montana parish is led by a married lay man, offers this observation: "It takes some time for us to sort out in our minds what the role of the pastoral administrator's wife is. If you were Episcopalian you'd know, but we don't. How do we treat her? Protocol is confusing! In fact, she is a parishioner, same as you and I and anybody else." Denton also observes that "a lay administrator doesn't have the ‘Roman collar badge,' so he has to prove himself as an individual."

Though that may be most true in the beginning, pastoral administrators by and large feel very supported and accepted by their parishioners. "It took a while for them to get used to me because they were used to sisters," says Sturbaun, "but they seem to have adjusted."

Do parishioners have trouble adjusting to women as leaders? "I don't even think about it—I really don't," says Marilyn Scott, a parishioner at St. Therese Parish in Kosciusko, Mississippi.

"They're thrilled to see someone in the house, to see the lights on," says Schmelzle. I've encountered absolutely no opposition."

Women religious, who comprise the bulk of parish administrators, have encountered very few skeptics, perhaps because, as St. Ann's Bowman says, "Many of our older parishioners were taught by nuns." Though parish administrators face significant administrative and identity struggles, none are as theologically and pastorally challenging as those surrounding the Sunday celebration of Eucharist.

This is not Mass
For most lay leaders in priestless parishes, leading a "Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest," more commonly known as a Communion service, is a regular responsibility. A Communion service—which consists of the Sunday scripture readings, hymns, a lay-led reflection on the readings, and a distribution of previously consecrated Communion hosts—is offered in lieu of Mass. Most parishes, like St. Ann in Wisconsin, are able to find a priest to preside at one Mass on Sunday and typically offer a Communion service on Saturday. Others, like St. Joseph in Montana, have Mass on the first and third Sundays of the month, and a Communion service on the second, fourth, and fifth Sundays of the month. The Masses that are available are often courtesy of retired priests who drive 30 miles or more and "come at the drop of the hat," says Schleder.

How do parishioners react to the fact that sometimes a Communion service is their only option for weekend worship? Lay parish leaders report that most parishioners adapt to the situation and that often community appears to eclipse Eucharist in importance.

"We have the same number of parishioners each week no matter what kind of service we're having," says Schleder. "They have the need for their weekly worship in their community. If we didn't do [a Communion service] on the second and fourth Sundays they would not drive to other communities for Sunday Eucharist. We're supposed to feel that Mass is more important, but that's tough to do."

Sturbaun echoes the importance of coming together, whether it is for a Communion service or a Mass. "We need to come together regularly, because if we don't, we fall apart because we are so small." Schmelzle adds, "The fact that they still function as a parish with whatever system is available is important to them. We gather the community for a type of worship that is not Eucharist per se, but we are bringing the people together and they are really glad for that."

Priestless Parishes author Stillwell offers a theological explanation. "People [in priestless parishes] are discovering the presence of Christ in community that becomes more and more clear without a priestly presence there and without Eucharist. People seemed as though they would prefer to worship with their own community rather than go somewhere else so they could hear the Eucharistic Prayer." Though this mentality is a reality for many of today's Catholics, it causes skeptics to raise some questions.

The vanishing Eucharist
What effect does the "vanishing Eucharist" have on Catholics, for whom Eucharist is the heart of the liturgical life? What does it mean for Catholics that the availability of the Eucharist is diminishing? Paul Wilkes, author of the 2001 book Excellent Catholic Parishes (Paulist Press), says Communion services as an alternative to Mass are "woefully inadequate…the Eucharist is the very center of Catholic life, and successful Catholics stay close to the Eucharist. In Eucharist we are touched by the divine, and we take the presence of God into us."

Catholic parishioners in priestless parishes by and large seem to be satisfied with receiving Communion without celebrating the Mass. According to Karen Kane, director of the Office of Worship in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, this indicates a lack of proper teaching about the Mass.

"We have fallen short in helping people to really understand the importance of offering praise and thanksgiving through the Eucharistic Prayer," Kane says. "People value the presence of Christ in the consecrated hosts—they still believe in that—but what about the presence of Christ in the actual celebration of Eucharist?"

Kane agrees that while Communion services are necessary from a practical standpoint, they are troublesome theologically in that they undermine the teachings of Christ.

"We're saying as a church that we are willing to give up Sunday Eucharist for celibacy," she says. "We are saying that we are willing to give up what Christ commanded us. He commanded us not just to take and eat, but also to take and bless, break and eat. It is a sad state of affairs. This says to me that we haven't done an adequate job in creating a love for the celebration of the Eucharist, the actual doing of the eucharistic liturgy, the breaking of the bread, the eating and the drinking."

Though a Communion service is far from the perfect solution to the priest shortage, Schmelzle believes that it is far better than closing a parish, forcing people to look elsewhere for the sacraments. "We must keep these places functioning as communities of faith. We work together in the church these days to do what is best for the people. Diminishing our ministry by closing a parish is not the answer."

Stillwell agrees. "There is a lot of value in seeing ourselves as constitutive elements of the church, with or without Eucharist."

Father who?
Who are the hard-driving clergy serving as sacramental ministers in priestless parishes? Lay leaders in priestless parishes agree wholeheartedly that retired priests are invaluable. In parishes served by the same sacramental minister each week, that particular priest becomes an integral member of their community.

Such is the case at St. John Parish, an inner-city parish of 164 households in North Charleston, South Carolina. Brother Ed Bergeron, C.F.C. collaborates with a retired priest who drives 40 miles to preside at Mass, celebrate Reconciliation, and anoint the sick and dying of the parish. "I think we have the ideal situation," says Bergeron. "He is very faithful—all I have to do is call him. He really likes the arrangement. In seven years we've never had a Sunday without Mass."

Not every priestless parish, however, has the luxury of a regular sacramental minister. In some parishes, lay leaders are forced to call upon whoever is available, and a visiting priest doesn't always blend seamlessly with these close-knit communities.

"The priests do not live up here and do not share the events in these people's lives and don't have time to get to know them," says Wisconsin's Schwartz. "People are attracted to the service Sister has because they know Sister."

Kendall, of Sacred Heart Parish in Michigan, agrees. "You never know what priest you are going to have, and that makes things very difficult."

The tough nature of the situation is felt not only by the parishioners but also by the priests themselves. Serving as "circuit-rider" priests is a challenge for presiders, according to Father Eugene Hemrick, director of the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood. "When you do something too often, for example, five funerals per day, it can become very mechanical and you lose the central aspects of it. You get in a rut," says Hemrick.

And just as parishioners value the connection between sacraments and community, priests treasure these same connections. "What priests enjoy above all is saying the Mass with the people," Hemrick says, "but that includes a lot more than just saying Mass—it's about meeting with people afterward, getting to know them, and helping them when you can. That's where priests find the most enjoyment."

Kane agrees that when a sacramental minister is separated from the life of a community, some meaning is lost. "There is a great concern that priests are becoming sacramental magicians and that sacraments no longer have connections to the lived experience of the community. Sacraments become magical acts that happen when Father comes in. This is a huge dilemma for all of us," she says.

The future sacramental life of priestless parishes remains precarious and uncertain, as does the number of parishes that will be priestless in the near future. What does remain constant, however, is the loyalty of the laity. Laypeople continue to step forward in the face of this adversity, both as professionals and volunteers, and people like Karen Kane remain hopeful.

"God's grace is always present in the church," she says. "It's scary to think about what's going to happen, but maybe we will be pleasantly surprised. We might see the church take on a whole new way of being." And as clergy and laity alike forge ahead in search of this new way of being, people like the hardy parishioners of St. Augustine Parish work to keep things together, trying to secure their future, one pasty at a time.

Renne LaReau is the author of  Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis). She writes from Columbus, Ohio. This article appeared in the June 2004 (Volume 69, Number 6: pages 12-17) issue of U.S.Catholic.

All active news articles