Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Priest shortage continues to plague U.S. churches

Cornfields still too wet to plant were on some of their minds as they gathered for worship at Immaculate Conception Church. 

They could only fill a few pews at the rural parish.

Their spiritual leader, the Rev. Oliver Nwachukwu, also was raised around agriculture. It just wasn't mechanized.

He grew up in a mud house in Nigeria, helping his family subsist on cassava, yams and maize. 

It was a life in the Roman Catholic priesthood that led him down a much different row to hoe. 

He ran a seminary back home, studied religion at Harvard and arrived three years ago like a missionary on the southern Illinois plains, where on this Sunday morning he was the only black man in the room, and likely the only foreigner.

With the dearth of local men willing to become priests, Nwachukwu is part of an effort to keep even tiny congregations alive. Among about 90 active parish priests in the Diocese of Belleville, which oversees most Catholic churches in Metro East - a five-county section of Illinois east of St. Louis - and southern Illinois, at least 10 are from Africa.

In the St. Louis region, the number of priests has dropped by a third since 1985, mirroring a national trend. But what has been a slow-moving crisis now is accelerating.

Half of the nation's parish priests are expected to retire in less than 10 years across the country. New priests are making up for only a third of those leaving active ministry.

The Catholic Church is taking creative steps toward making do. In the Diocese of Belleville, that means importing priests and relying on the work of people who are not clergy.

Many priests inactive

The day before the service in Tamaroa, Ill., the former "Rome of the West," as the Archdiocese of St. Louis once was called, ordained just four new priests. 

They joined 365 other priests, down from 568 in 1985 in the organization, which covers 10 counties and the city of St. Louis. 

Roughly a third of the archdiocese's priests either are retired or inactive in ministry, with another fourth expected to retire within five to 10 years.

The decline in the number of priests has been attributed to a host of factors. And it has been accelerated more recently in the wake of sex-abuse scandals.

Lay people assist
Today, making do with fewer priests means employing a range of strategies amid the added challenges of population shifts.

As they administer the sacraments for more people, some priests say their role increasingly has become more removed from parish life and more tied to ceremonial functions.

The Diocese of Belleville has added nonpriest positions such as parish life coordinators to help conserve day-to-day responsibilities and prevent further closings. The trend is consistent with institutional changes in the Catholic Church in the 1960s that called on lay people to not only pray, pay and obey, but to get involved in ministry.

But relying on lay people to fill in for absent priests can only go so far, because they cannot consecrate the Eucharist, where Catholics believe Jesus Christ is present in the transformed bread and wine.

Help from overseas

Importing international priests to keep the Eucharist alive and parishes open has been a defining element of Bishop Edward Braxton's leadership since he arrived at the Diocese of Belleville in 2005.

Bishop Braxton recruited Nwachukwu in 2008 from Chicago, where he completed a Ph.D., taught and was a chaplain at a veteran's hospital.

Nwachukwu needed parish experience. He replaced a priest who had all but abandoned his remote post, congregants said.

And so Nwachukwu, 58, replaced him. Despite a speaker recently added at the back of the room, the congregation didn't understand much of what he said during the service in Tamaroa.

Sylvester and Stanley Bejma, brothers who farm together, said it reminded them of when they were kids and the service was in Latin. They couldn't understand that either.

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