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Wanted: Prospective deacons to help stem Pittsburgh Diocese's priest shortage

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, 7:15 p.m.
Deacons of the Diocese of Pittsburgh line up for the procession into St. Paul's Cathedral at the Ordination of Priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in Oakland on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Michael Richard Ackerman, Michael Patrick Conway, Kenneth William Marlovits, and Thomas George Schluep Jr. were ordinated into the Diocese of Pittsburgh Saturday morning.
Emily Harger | Tribune-Review
Deacons of the Diocese of Pittsburgh line up for the procession into St. Paul's Cathedral at the Ordination of Priests of the Diocese of Pittsburgh in Oakland on Saturday, June 28, 2014. Michael Richard Ackerman, Michael Patrick Conway, Kenneth William Marlovits, and Thomas George Schluep Jr. were ordinated into the Diocese of Pittsburgh Saturday morning.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh is urging interested applicants to join its next class of deacons-in-training, part of an effort to respond to a persisting shortage of priests.

Bishop David A. Zubik announced Tuesday that the diocese will begin taking pastoral nominations for college-educated men 30 to 59 who seek to be admitted to the Deacon Formation Program.

The program's first two classes drew 31 participants, who still are in the training process. The program takes five years.

Zubik intends to call for a new class every other year.

"My hope in calling for another diaconate class is to foster the formation of men who are willing to develop their potential for servant leadership in the Church and to embrace the model of Jesus Christ's humble, loving care for others — especially those who are sick, elderly, imprisoned, hungry, poor, lonely and forgotten," Zubik said in a statement.

The Pittsburgh diocese — which spans Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Greene and Washington counties — has more than 90 permanent deacons.

Deacons can assist priests at Mass, preach on occasion and preside over baptisms, weddings and funerals.

They devote much of their ministry to works of service and charity, including visiting hospitals, nursing homes, correctional facilities and underserved populations.

Some deacons have administrative duties.

Priests need backup

Increasing the number of deacons — as well as lay leadership in general — has been identified as a key piece to addressing the broader priest shortage problem affecting Catholic churches nationwide.

Twenty-five years ago, the Pittsburgh diocese had more than 600 active priests.

By 2000, only 338 priests remained, and the figure dwindled to 209 as of last May, the diocese said.

The trend has spurred an increase in roving priests and contributed to reorganization efforts intended to reflect the shifting needs of parish communities.

RELATED: We need to make our worship better,' Pittsburgh Bishop Zubik says

Nationally, nearly 3,500 of about 17,500 Catholic parishes do not have a resident priest, compared with 549 of 17,600 parishes that did not in 1965 and about 1,800 that lacked one in 1990, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Meanwhile, U.S. deacons have proliferated — from fewer than 900 in 1975 to more than 17,500, CARA data show.

The Pittsburgh diocese says the ideal deacon candidate is a "man of solid faith, deep spirituality and good reputation and character" who follows all Catholic teachings.

Further, he "should be physically, psychologically and emotionally healthy; generously willing to serve the diocesan Church; and capable of assuming a leadership role and working well with a diversity of people."

Greensburg Diocese has a program, too

The neighboring Diocese of Greensburg — which includes Westmoreland, Armstrong, Fayette and Indiana counties — runs its own deacon formation program that dates to more than 10 years ago.

More recently, Greensburg has been turning to foreign clergy to fill its ministry gaps.

By 2025, Greensburg expects to have only 27 priests — about a fourth of what it had in 2000.

RELATED: Catholic priests spread thin as numbers dwindle

On the global scale, Pope Francis is exploring whether to allow women to become deacons — a move favored by 6 in 10 U.S. women who are Catholic, according to an American Magazine survey published in January.

At a Vatican gathering of bishops this fall, Francis is expected to discuss the possibility of allowing married men to become priests.

RELATED: Pope open to married men being priests

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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