As the new year starts I want to bring you up to date on a conversation that’s going on among parish leadership. It has to do with our likely future, when — possibly as early as this June, possibly later — our staff is reduced to two priests. The number of available priests in the diocese continues to shrink, and at some point the bishop will no longer be able to assign three priests here — there simply won’t be enough of us to go around. (There’s a formula the diocese uses that takes into account numbers of people attending Mass, sacramental services, responsibility for hospital/nursing home ministry, etc. That formula then indicates which parishes most need the services of priests, and how many the diocese can afford to assign there.)
You may remember that last May Fr. Eugene had to return to his home diocese, and we were without a third priest for a month. Then Fr. Nestor was assigned for three months. He was replaced in October by Fr. Ruben, who is assigned here until this June. (His bishop has given him permission to be away from his diocese until June 2014 and we hope our diocese will allow him to remain here for the additional year; but that will depend on other diocesan needs.) The spate of short-term assignments leads me to believe that there’s a crisis in the number of priests available. So what will happen when our staff of priests is reduced, whether it be this June or beyond?
Inevitably, you’ll see less of the priests who continue to serve here. Two can’t do the work of three, and that will mean cuts in regularly-scheduled Masses, and fewer special Masses and other services presided over by priests. (By church law priests are usually allowed to celebrate Mass only twice on a Sunday or Holy Day, once on a weekday. In cases of pastoral need we can invoke a special permission to make that three on a Sunday, two on a weekday. But the point of the law is to ensure that the priest can pray the Mass with the people, not simply go through the rubrics. So we need to respect the intention of the law and not schedule in such a way that we constantly have to invoke the exception.) In addition days off, retreats, and other diocesan obligations will mean that Our Lady of Grace will be, for practical effects, a one-priest parish on most weekdays.
I don’t know, at this point, when our staff will be cut or what changes we’ll make when it is. But in preparation, I think it’s important to recognize that many services you now see done by priests can be done by deacons, religious, or lay women or men. We aren’t likely to have the funds to hire more non-priest professional ministers, so these will likely be volunteers from the parish. You may find such ministers, after appropriate training, conducting pre-baptism and pre-marriage interviews, leading (non-Mass) worship more frequently, and more.
(One practical issue we face right now is what weekly Mass schedule to project for after June, so that people can obtain Mass-intentions. Usually we “open the Mass-book” for intentions July through June in February. This year, we’ll postpone that until we know more definitely whether or not we’ll have three priests on staff and can continue with our accustomed schedule.)
I’ll continue to give you information both about diocesan decisions and about our parish leadership’s discussions and conclusions. In the meantime, until next week, peace.