Among priests serving in less populated parts of the Rochester Diocese, the effectiveness of ministry can often be equated with the performance of vehicles.
Father Robert Ring, for example, is not simply a small-town priest. He’s a small-towns priest — in six towns, to be exact. The fourth-year pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Parish recently gave away a car on which he had racked up some 346,000 miles, thanks to an expansive Finger Lakes pastorate encompassing St. Michael, Penn Yan; St. Andrew, Dundee; St. Theresa, Stanley; St. Mary, Rushville; St. Januarius, Naples; and St. Patrick, Prattsburg.
“Someone was telling me I had a moon car, because I had driven the distance to the moon,” Father Ring remarked. Actually, he’d driven even farther — the distance from Earth to the moon is about 250,000 miles.
Our Lady of the Lakes’ parochial vicar, Father Mickey McGrath, quipped that he’s made a point of getting to know of at least one good auto mechanic in each of the six towns. In Tompkins County, meanwhile, Father Scott Kubinski has upgraded his wheels since becoming temporary administrator of St. Anthony in Groton and Holy Cross in Dryden last summer — while also continuing his duties as administrator at All Saints in Lansing and chaplain at Ithaca College.
“I had to get a much better car. I need an all-wheel drive because the roads are very treacherous,” he remarked.
Father Kubinski will continue traveling many miles for the foreseeable future. Although his college chaplaincy will cease, he has been appointed pastor of St. Anthony, Holy Cross and All Saints beginning this summer. He plans to continue residing at Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Church, which is eight miles from Lansing, nine miles from Dryden and 14 miles from Groton.
More and more, such scenarios are becoming the norm for diocesan priest assignments outside Monroe County. Except in such cities as Auburn and Elmira, priests are generally required to cover two or more towns or villages. And the challenge of maintaining a priestly presence in these communities will only deepen as pastoral-planning efforts move forward in anticipation of having fewer priests available.
“There’s very little left that’s not clustered in some way or another,” Father McGrath noted.
In general, this type of ministry requires a discipline that squeezes the most out of the time available.
“I really try to think ahead; I try really hard not to be late,” Father Ring said. “If you couldn’t multitask, this would be impossible.”
At Our Lady of the Lakes, weekend Mass schedules are worked out months in advance among Father Ring, Father McGrath and their extern priest, Father John Gathenya of Kenya. The priests maximize their time by going over their homilies while driving; carrying laptop computers between church offices; and making effective use of e-mail.
Father Kubinski strives for balance by having office hours on Mondays at All Saints, Tuesday at Ithaca College, Wednesdays at Holy Cross and Thursdays at St. Anthony. However, “It doesn’t work out that way a lot of times,” he said, adding that “evenings can be all over the place. There have been times I’ve had to be in all four places.”
In addition to his parish responsibilities, Father Ring noted “I also have commitments that bring me to Rochester. I find that if I’ve made one or two trips to Rochester in a week, that can start to get wearisome.”
Given the circumstances, confusion can naturally creep up from time to time. Father Ring recalled that he was once awakened in Penn Yan by a late-night hospital call — and mistakenly told the caller he was in Naples, where he had stayed the previous few nights. Meanwhile, Father McGrath noted, “a couple of times two of us have shown up at the same (church) at the same time — which is not all bad until you say, ‘If you’re here, who’s over there (in the next town)?'”
Preventing overload is an important issue for Father Michael Schramel, the first-year pastor of Holy Family Parish (Sacred Heart, Perkinsville, St. Pius V, Cohocton, St. Joseph, Wayland, and St. Mary, Dansville.) Since his arrival, Father Schramel has explored hiring more lay staff and rearranged Saturday-evening Mass schedules so he has more time to gather with other area priests for dinner. These measures improve the odds that Father Schramel can celebrate “an intentionally good liturgy, instead of an accidentally good liturgy. That’s kind of been my mantra,” he said.
Facing the future
How far, literally and figuratively, can rural priests be stretched as their number continues to decline? While extern and retired priests provide major sacramental assistance at rural parishes, the assignments of externs are temporary, and “with the older clergy I’m finding for a number of them a hesitancy or slight reluctance to be in those (multitown) situations,” said Father Michael Conboy, diocesan director of priest personnel.
Even when priests are willing to travel and lay people take on non-sacramental ministerial roles, Father Conboy said he fears the return of the “circuit rider” model, in which clergy are limited to administering sacraments. Under such circumstances, “priests don’t have actual time to spend building communities,” he explained.
Canon law limits priests to saying three Sunday Masses, which means the number of liturgies may continue to decline.
“Folks are going to have to be willing to travel a little farther,” Father Conboy said, pointing out we’re a more mobile society than when similar priest shortages existed in the early years of the 137-year-old Rochester Diocese.
Within Our Lady of the Lakes, Father McGrath predicted that many, but not all, would journey to another town to attend Mass. Father Schramel observed that in Holy Family Parish, parishioners willingly visit other communities to shop — but not necessarily for worship, due to long-standing parochialism from town to town.
“I think it’s a real challenge (for me) not so much to go between the places, but getting them to see themselves as a single (parish) community,” he remarked.