Diocese considers plan to ease shortage of priests

| Sunday, March 1, 2009

As head of the Allegheny Valley Deanery in the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese, the Rev. Frank Almade advises 16 parishes -- in addition to being pastor of what officially became St. Juan Diego Parish today.

"I work more than 50 hours a week, and I suspect most priests do. It's an extensive schedule," said Almade, who says Mass five days, visits the sick, attends meetings in and out of the Sharpsburg parish -- formerly Madonna of Jerusalem -- and spends time at his computer writing sermons.

As the number of retiring priests continues to outpace the number ordained, the diocese is reorganizing to help free priests for sacramental duties by creating regional administrative districts that might include 40 to 70 parishes.

"The bottom line is providing better services to our people. We have to become a better servant church," said Bishop David A. Zubik, who will meet with priests and deanery officials this month to talk about the plan that might be implemented by the end of the year.

Diocesan officials know the days of one priest per parish are nearing an end. There are 280 priests active in the diocese, not counting priests who are members of religious orders, such as the Spiritains or the Franciscans.

Experts estimate more than 50 percent of U.S. Catholic parishes and missions are served by a priest ministering to more than one parish.

The Pittsburgh diocese consists of 719,801 Catholics in 212 parishes, separated into 16 deaneries based on geographical areas. Each dean advises six to 20 parishes and helps coordinate parish activities and ministries.

Catholicism is the region's largest religious denomination.

Although the number of priests has declined for two decades, the next 10 years are of particular concern because baby-boomer priests are reaching retirement age. Forty-four priests in the Pittsburgh diocese could retire this year. By 2019, the diocese could have just 100 priests.

Zubik is considering creating three to five administrative units called vicariates. The regional vicar would be a priest, at least 30 years old, with an advanced education in canon law or theology. He would work with priests and parish councils, visit churches and be a liaison to diocesan hierarchy.

The switch is not a prelude to consolidating parishes, said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, diocesan spokesman.

"That's not what the effort is about at all. It's not even on the radar," he said. "It's trying to make the church ... come alive by getting priests and parishes to work together."

The church would invite members to become lay ministers, parish council members or volunteers, "to get more people involved in the life of the parish," Zubik said. Parishes will be encouraged to share resources, such as joint purchasing, or personnel.

The change won't come cheaply. Three regional vicars would cost about $500,000 in salaries and benefits, room and board, cars, food, office rental, a secretary's salary and benefits and office expenses, the diocese said. Those costs climb to $800,000 if five regional vicars are appointed.

The Diocese of Greensburg, which last year closed 14 parishes, merged two and partnered 26 to share a priest, has no plans to change from its deanery system.

"It has worked well for us," said Monsignor Lawrence Persico, vicar general.

Regional vicariates developed from the Second Vatican Council and are used in a number of dioceses and archdioceses, including Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Detroit; Dubuque, Iowa; Los Angeles; St. Paul, Minn.; Washington, D.C., and New York.

Additional Information:

Diocese of Pittsburgh

280 - Number of active diocesan priests

3 - Number of ordinations of diocesan priests

212 - Number of parishes

177 - Number parishes with resident pastors

262 - The number of lay ministers

16 - The number of deaneries

Source: Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

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