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Bishop Zubik will face many obstacles

| Sunday, July 22, 2007, 12:00 p.m.

The new bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh will inherit many problems his predecessor faced, but Bishop David Zubik will be able to use his experience here, and the framework Bishop Donald Wuerl created, to deal with them.

A declining Catholic population, a shortage of priests, pending cases in the church sexual abuse scandal and a community of religious leaders wary of recent statements from Pope Benedict XVI await Zubik, theologians and other experts said.

Benedict earlier this month reasserted the Catholic Church's position that other Christian churches are not true churches. The long-standing position on Catholic primacy is something other churches see as divisive. Benedict revived the Latin Mass earlier this month, which angered people who saw it as regressive and even offensive.

"Those words mean that Bishop Zubik is going to have to speak up to his own personal commitment, and to the church's commitment, to ecumenism," or dialogue between Christian denominations, said Pastor Donald Green, executive director of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "Personally, I have no doubt he'll do that."

Zubik, an Ambridge native who served nearly 30 years in the Pittsburgh diocese before being named bishop of the Green Bay, Wis., diocese, has "known the tradition of ecumenism in Pittsburgh over the past four decades. I have no doubt he'll be at the forefront in seeking unity," Green said.

Zubik will have to contend with a worldwide priest shortage as it affects Pittsburgh, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Seminary at Georgetown University. The number of priests in the United States declined from almost 60,000 in 1965 to about 42,000 in 2006, according to the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The number of ordinations fell from 994 to 431 during the same period.

Twenty-six of the Pittsburgh diocese's 289 active priests are responsible for more than one parish, according to the diocese. One priest was ordained in the Pittsburgh diocese in 2006, and three have been ordained this year.

"It's pretty hard to run the church without the priests," Reese said. Dioceses have tried to mitigate the shortage with a "lay ministry," Reese said -- church members who help run their parishes.

Zubik is chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on the Laity, so he's familiar enough with the issue to help the lay ministry flourish, Reese said. One component, which trains men to be deacons, has 48 "deacon aspirants," and acting Bishop Paul Bradley began another recruiting drive in June.

Within his first year on the job, Zubik might have to contend with a court ruling on 35 sexual abuse lawsuits pending in Allegheny County court, said Alan Perer, a Downtown attorney with The Law Firm of Swensen, Perer & Kontos, which represents the alleged victims.

Wuerl drew praise for his handling of the church's sex abuse scandal when he implemented a zero-tolerance policy for abuse in the diocese. In the last few years, the Catholic church has begun screening priests and monitoring them more closely, steps that have fostered more trust between the church hierarchy and others, Perer said.

"They're moving in the right direction," he said.

Though Catholicism remains the region's largest denomination, the numbers are falling. More than 850,000 Catholics lived in Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Greene, Lawrence and Washington counties in 2000, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. Today, the diocese says it serves about 764,000.

Wuerl, who dealt with the decline throughout his tenure, closed 40 church buildings and reduced the number of parishes by 117 during a reorganization between 1988 and 1994, according to the diocese. A second reorganization resulted in 33 more church buildings being closed.

That will make it easier for Zubik to manage future population loss, said Mary Gautier, editor of the CARA Report, a newsletter from the Georgetown University research center.

"If a reorganization is already going on, (and) people have been educated to realize the necessity for it, it's possibly going to be a less traumatic experience than if it had been delayed," Gautier said.

The reason more people aren't joining the church ought to be a more pressing concern for Zubik, said Father Bill Hausen, a former Catholic priest who was excommunicated in 2004 after starting his own church, the Christ Hope Ecumenical Catholic Church in Sewickley.

Hausen, who worked with Zubik at Sacred Heart Church in Shadyside from 1975 to 1980, said the church needs to modernize. He cites its positions on divorce, birth control, the ordination of women, the celibacy requirement for clergy and the church's "authoritarian" structure as things that ought to change.

Zubik is unlikely to challenge the church's position on those issues, Hausen said.

"Dave is a good man. He's genuine, and he's chosen to work within the system," Hausen said. "He may try to change that (system) -- but not too much."

Additional Information:

Fast facts

Denomination: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Synod: Southwestern Pennsylvania (10 counties)

Headquarters: Perry Highway (Route 19), McCandless, Allegheny County

Current bishop: The Rev. Donald J. McCoid

Bishop-elect: The Rev. Kurt F. Kusserow

Term of office: Six years

Churches: 207

Parishioners: 86,039

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