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Future of the Faith, Part Three09:10

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As we heard yesterday in Part Two of our series on the Boston Catholic Archdiocese, revitalizing the church rests heavily on the priests. Yet, Boston and the nation are facing a serious shortage of men taking up the vocation.

In our series, "The Future of the Faith," today we look at how the Archdiocese is trying to deal with the problem. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.


MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The numbers tell the story. Within the next six years there won't be enough priests to run all of the Archdiocese's 294 parishes. The gap could be a wide as 50 priests. An internal planning report warns if the archdiocese doesn't take action now, there will be more church closings and that will lead to more financial problems.

BRIAN HEHIR: Priests know we are facing a major challenge, quantitatively and qualitatively.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Father Brian Hehir is the Secretary for Health and Social Services at the Archdiocese of Boston.

BRIAN HEHIR: Quantitatively, in terms of how many people will be around to do the work, and qualitatively just given the history we've been through what is it going to take to reconstitute the life of the community of the church.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Many of today's priests have told the archdiocese they are feeling stressed, frustrated and highly pressured. But that's not how Father Steve Josoma feels.

Sounds of closing up church.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: As he locks up St Susanna's in Dedham after saying one of the five masses he says a week, Father Steve, as he's called, says he is optimistic even though staffing has changed significantly since his church opened in 1961.

STEVE JOSOMA: There used to be 3 priests a housekeeper, a cook here now it's me and my dog, what's his name? Felix? Say hello buddie, come on in.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The yellow lab Felix runs over, wagging his tail. Father Steve is 52 years old and prefers polo shirts to the priest's collar. He signed the letter asking for Cardinal Bernard Law's resignation and fought the archdiocese when they first put St. Susanna's on the closing list. While his ways might seem unorthodox to the archdiocese, his parish is thriving, with 750 families and balanced books.

Sounds of rain and traffic.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: As he walks Felix along a busy road in the pouring rain, Father Steve says he's frustrated the archdiocese has never asked him what makes his parish such a success.

STEVE JOSOMA: I've been obeying for 26 years this past year. I don't think once has anyone asked my opinion about things or what's the experience of people in my parish.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Josoma says the problems of the priest shortage could be solved if the archdioceses did what half the parishes in the world do — have no resident priest. In the U.S. about 18% are run by paid administrators. But Josoma thinks the Archdiocese of Boston only wants priests in leadership roles.

STEVE JOSOMA: In some ways, I think the powers that be would like us to kept as infants and dependent on them. And if you pay someone to come in a run a parish as an administrator or a parish leader, someone who's not beholden to you, it's a whole different story, a lot more difficult to control that.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: It's not about trust; it's about doctrine, says Father Richard Erikson, Vicar General of the Archdiocese. Erikson says a priest is central to celebrating the Catholic faith because only he can say mass.

RICHARD ERIKSON: Right now in the archdiocese of Boston, thank God, we are not at a point where we do not have enough priests to serve in every parish, and as long as we have priests to serve in every single parish, we will.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: It's a high standard considering the archdiocese loses 25 active priests a year through retirement, death, or disability. And 140 parish priests are over 65 years old. Father Erikson says lay people already are vital to running parishes and he's counting on them to do more.

RICHARD ERIKSON: The challenges that await us in the future are going to be greater than we've seen previously so we need to have an even greater collaboration of clergy, religious, and lay in terms of leadership.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But there's frustration among many lay Catholics that the Archdiocese isn't listening to them.

Sound of singing in Mass.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: At St. Jeremiah's in Framingham, about a hundred people gather as a visiting priest says mass. The archdiocese closed St. Jeremiah's in 2005 but the parishioners protested and took over the church in a 24-hour vigil. Now it's run by people such as Jackie Lemmerhirt.

JACKIE LEMMERHIRT: All laity, it's a total lay-run parish.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: After Mass, Lemmerhirt explains the church has 200 families and 100 kids are enrolled in religious education. Lemmerhirt says they are showing the Archdiocese a parish can thrive without a priest.

JACKIE LEMMERHIRT: Unfortunately in Boston, the mindset in the organization of archdiocese is that priests needs to lead the parish and unfortunately they are going to have to find out the hard way that's not going to be practical.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The hard way could be more church closings, as the archdiocese's own planning document warns. And that would further alienate Catholics, many of whom have stopped going to Mass over the past 5 years. Nationally 36% of Catholics say they attend Mass regularly. In the Boston area, the archdiocese says only 20% of the Catholic population worships every Sunday. One of the many Catholics who no longer go to church, is Joe Ramrath.

JOE RAMRATH: I would say they've left me entirely. (laughter) I don't think of myself as having left.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Ramrath was ordained a Deacon 12 years ago because he wanted to help with the priest shortage. He assisted his part-time pastor at St. Anselm in Sudbury in what he thought was a model way to run a thriving parish without a full-time priest. But the archdiocese closed it along with 62 other churches in a painful reconfiguration process. Ramrath, who worships privately, says the archdiocese hasn't assigned him to another parish. And he would hesitate to serve again as a Deacon.

JOE RAMRATH: If they are going to enlist the help of lay people and deacons, then they really need to develop more of a partnership model with these folks. And nothing the archdiocese has done in my experience treats people with that kind of respect.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: An obvious solution to the priest shortage is to ordain more priests. In the 1960s, more than 30 priests were being ordained each year. This year, seven men will become priests. The archdiocese has expanded the vocation office headed by Father Dan Hennessey.

DAN HENNESSEY: There are a lot of men being called to serve the lord as priests but they are not hearing the call. In many ways we live in a culture that does not have its eyes fixed on eternity on Heaven.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Hennessey goes to parishes, local colleges and universities to recruit. He says he's encouraged by the level of interest.

In recent years, the number of men studying at St. John's Seminary in Brighton has grown. Two years ago there were 30 seminarians. Next year there will be more than 80. But many wonder why the Church doesn't reexamine its celibacy rule or allow women to become priests. Those are Vatican rules that are unlikely to change. And Father Hehir, Secretary for Health and Social Services, says the church should be careful not to soften the rules.

BRIAN HEHIR: There are fewer people but in a sense that requires you keep the standards really high for entrance. Because if you don't, you're going to be unfair to people who come into a job where the tasks are going to be very severe and therefore they gotta be well equipped.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Many are convinced that if the archdiocese engages the laity more it will not just survive the decline in priests, but thrive and prosper. And Hennessey believes that will take a combined effort.

DAN HENNESSEY: The Lord always provides and what's most important these days it to turn to the lord and depend on him. He will provide for his church because he loves his church.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Past warnings about priest shortages have gone unheeded and the archdiocese admits it doesn't have an infrastructure for planning. But the new leadership under Cardinal Sean O'Malley says it's committed to creating a plan that will address the priest shortage.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on April 16, 2008.

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