Numbers of Mass-goers, priests down, but turnaround is expected - Catholic Courier

Numbers of Mass-goers, priests down, but turnaround is expected

Over the past decade, the numbers of Catholics attending weekend Masses in the Diocese of Rochester have eroded alongside declines in the number of priests available to serve in diocesan parishes.

Between 1997 and 2007, the diocese lost the service of more than 50 diocesan, religious-order and extern priests, just as parishes were seeing notable declines in Mass attendance.

Yet Father Michael Conboy, the diocesan director of priest personnel, sees room for optimism on both issues.

“I think it will come back eventually to seeing an increase in people who are united with God and their faith community,” Father Conboy said. “There’s definitely a place for organized religion, and it’ll always be there.”

Father Conboy recalled that the parishes of his youth were packed with people who were served by many more priests. The number of diocesan priests peaked in 1967 at 440, and the number of religious-order priests in the diocese peaked at 221 in 1963. In 1965, 585 priests — 407 diocesan (371 of them active) and 178 religious-order priests — were living in the Diocese of Rochester, according to statistics provided by the diocesan pastoral-planning department.

Although numbers of priests have fallen since the mid-1960s, numbers of permanent deacons and extern priests from other dioceses have steadily climbed. Rochester ordained its first class of permanent deacons in 1982, 14 years after the U.S. bishops voted to restore the order to the U.S. church.

By 2007, however, the diocese was home to only 281 priests — 197 diocesan priests (111 of them active), 58 religious-order priests and 26 priests from other dioceses. The diocese also had 124 permanent deacons working in various capacities in 2007, according to pastoral-planning statistics.

Although a host of priest retirements loom in the coming years and there will be no priestly ordinations until at least 2013, six young men currently are studing for the diocese in major seminaries, said Carol Dady, coordinator of diocesan priesthood-vocation awareness and discernment. In addition, five men currently are living at Becket Hall, the diocesan residence for men in priestly discernment, which recently moved from the campus of the former Most Precious Blood Church in Rochester to St. Thomas More in Brighton.

In a sign that vocations are on the upswing, the diocese has been soliciting contributions for a fund to support the formation of priests.

“This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had that many in major seminary,” Dady said. “The diocese pays for all the seminary formation. While it’s a wonderful thing, it’s costly.”

But in the short term, the diocesan priest-personnel officials have had to respond with creativity in pastoral assignments to address the declining availability of priests, Father Conboy said.

“We’re thinking outside the box to see how we can best use our personnel,” he said.

He cited the example of his native Auburn, where he assists on weekends at St. Francis of Assisi/St. Hyacinth. Whereas each of these parishes once were served by a priest-pastor, sacramental duties now are shared by four priests — Father Conboy as well as Fathers Michael Brown, Richard Murphy and Felicjan Sierotowicz, who each also have concurrent duties at other parishes and/or as chaplains at correctional facilities or colleges. Deacon Gary DiLallo serves the parish cluster as pastoral administrator, Father Conboy noted.

“To me, that’s an example of how a parish can work with a limited number of priests,” he said. “We use our gifts and abilities in a better fashion.”

As priests are being asked to take on a wider range of assignments, the diocese has tried as part of its ministry to priests program to provide a variety of programs to help support them, including a quality-of-life board, which looks at health and socialization issues, and educational and well-being programs for priests, Father Conboy said.

“We have an intern program for newly ordained priests to help them assimilate into the day-to-day life of ministry as priests and support groups to further that same endeavor,” he added.

Such efforts are crucial to help maintain the current number of priests and to promote new vocations, according to Father Eugene Hemrick, director of the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood based at Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., and a syndicated columnist with Catholic News Service. Father Hemrick, a priest of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., noted that when a parish community and its priests work together in a positive way, that can help attract vocations and support current priests.

“There’s no question about it, with fewer priests, we’ve got to do better working as one,” Father Hemrick said.

Father Hemrick said parish-based vocation promotions can include information from the pulpit on vocations and committees that help identify people in discernment. Vocations also can be fostered by creating a parish climate that is free of resentment, full of kindness, reflective and substantive, and supportive of good health habits, he said.

Father Conboy echoed Father Hemrick’s sentiments, noting that prayers and civility are needed to counteract the struggles surrounding pastoral planning, in particular.

“People get very angry and anxious about change, and they take it out on whoever happens to be in the way,” Father Conboy said. “Very often it is a clergy person who is the leader of the community.”

Although in the short term some parishes are feeling the effects of reduced priest availability, Father Conboy said he believes the numbers eventually will balance out.

“We’ll go through some lean years, yet there’s a lot of good things happening through the faith community in fulfilling the Gospel mission,” he said. “We need to continue to pray and to put our best foot forward.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Details about the priest-formation fund are available by visiting www.dor.org or by calling 585-328-3210, ext. 1297.

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