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Response to the 2007 Murnion Lecture

delivered by Rev. James Bacik
June 29, 2007

It is a privilege to participate in an event that honors Cardinal Bernardin, Msgr. Murnion, and Dr. Fisher, and features a lecture by the distinguished educator and author Dr. Jill Ker Conway. Her insightful, inspiring and very personal presentation prompts reflection on four related issues: the priest shortage problem; the importance of parishes; the need for creative solutions; and the renewal of parish life.

The Priest Shortage

Dr. Conway gives us an inside look at how the priest shortage affects a local group of baptized Catholics. She puts a face on familiar statistics. In the United States, approximately 3,400 out of 18,600 parishes are without a resident pastor. In five dioceses, over half the parishes are without a resident priest. All over the country, parishes are being closed, some of which were viable faith communities. In my diocese of Toledo, we recently closed or merged over 25 parishes. My encounters with some of these displaced parishioners give me a glimpse of the profound grief involved in losing a treasured spiritual home.

Some bishops are dealing with the shortage by bringing foreign-born priests to the United States where they can enjoy a higher standard of living. This practice raises fundamental issues of justice and ecclesial solidarity since the priest parishioner ratio is worse in most countries around the world than in the United States. Brazil, for example, has 17,000 priests serving more than 50,000 parishes.

Independent researcher Joseph Claude Harris projects that the number of active diocesan priests in the USA will drop from 19,290 in 2005 to an estimated 16,990 by 2010 (The CARA Report Vol. 12 No. 3). If this 12% decline actually occurs, we can anticipate more parish closings and fewer parishes with a resident pastor as the pool of priests shrinks and the Catholic population increases. A growing number of parishes will face challenges similar to St. Mark's.

The Importance of Parishes

The dedicated effort of parishioners to keep St. Mark's operating reminds us of the significant role that parishes play in the life of Catholics in the United States. This fact needs emphasis since it is often obscured or forgotten. It is easy to take the marvelous parish system established throughout the country for granted. Many Catholics simply expect frequent opportunities to celebrate the Eucharist and a great variety of parochial services. Priests and other pastoral leaders can easily forget the importance of their ministries as they deal with financial problems, growing demands, and disgruntled parishioners. The secular culture has trouble appreciating the spiritual goals of pastoral ministry. The priest shortage can affect the morale of pastors who question why others do not choose to carry on their parochial ministry.

Historically, many Catholics have shared Dr. Conway's conviction that parishes are valuable and worthy of personal sacrifice and dedication. The 30 million Catholic immigrants who came to this country between 1820 and 1920 understood the importance of establishing parishes as a way of safeguarding and handing on their religious tradition in an often hostile environment. Typically, they made great sacrifices to buy land, build churches, hire pastors and form parishes that were the center of their lives. This tradition was carried on by the Catholics who fought in World War II, went to college with the help of the GI Bill, moved to the suburbs and established new parishes that served their spiritual needs. Post-Vatican II Catholics who have appropriated the conciliar teaching on the role of the laity value their parishes as communities of faith for which they are co-responsible. Large numbers of mobile Catholics today search out parishes that meet their spiritual needs and provide opportunities to serve others.

Catholics experience church at the local level in their parishes. As the great German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner insisted, the church is both an institution and an event. As event, the parish is the highest actualization of the universal church. Ideally, parishes are to be a credible sign and effective instrument of God's reign in the world. Actual parishes are always a mix of grace and sin. Catholics complain about a variety of things: poor preaching; lack of financial transparency; pastoral indifference; parish cliques; and poor religious education. Despite these criticisms, a substantial majority of Catholics report that their parish meets their spiritual needs completely or very well (cf. The Emerging Parish by Joseph Gremillion and Jim Castelli). The satisfaction expressed by St. Mark's parishioners is typical of most Catholics around the country who continue to value their parish connection.

Creative Solutions

The parishioners of St. Mark's deserve a great deal of credit for finding a way to keep the parish open and vibrant without a resident pastor. The current priest shortage demands both radical solutions and creative adaptations. According to canon law, there are three alternatives to the typical parish with a resident pastor: a team approach in which a group of priests led by a moderator, who represents the bishop, provides leadership for a number of parishes (517.1); a cluster where one priest serves two or more parishes usually in geographical proximity (526.1); and a pastoral leader model in which a person appointed by the bishop is the resident leader of the parish and a visiting priest provides for the sacramental life of the parish (517.2). St. Mark's does not fit neatly into any of these three models, since the parish does not really have an appointed resident pastoral leader and it is served both by visiting priests and a nearby pastor who presides at weddings and funerals. This successful adaptation suggests the possibility of more creative responses to the priest shortage.

At the same time, we should not neglect the possibility of more radical solutions. There are clear advantages to having a resident pastor for each viable faith community. A pastor serving a congregation on a fulltime basis over a period of years has the opportunity of establishing bonds of trust with the parishioners. He gets to knew something of their joys and sorrows, their successes and failures, their dreams and limitations. Homilies gain credibility when they are rooted in service and reflect the real concerns of the people. A top predictor of perceived homily effectivess is the statement “the preacher understands my heart” (Cf. A Light Unto My Path: Creating Effective Homilies by James Bacik and Kevin Anderson). The resident pastor has multiple opportunities to interact with his people in their special moments and their ordinary activities. He gets to know the diverse groups in the parish and their spiritual needs. Parishioners get the chance to know their pastor, his strengths and weaknesses. They know when he might be of service to them and when they need to seek assistance elsewhere. Obviously, not all pastors work well with their parishioners or have the skills to be effective leaders. Nevertheless, the resident pastor model has significant advantages as parishes strive to be genuine faith-communities.

In the early 1970's, Karl Rahner suggested a radical solution to the priest shortage problem (cf. The Shape of the Church to Come). He suggested that every faith community surface a real spiritual leader. This person is educated for ministry, ordained by the bishop and presides at the Eucharist. For Rahner, this leader could be married or unmarried, male or female (p. 111-114). There are two main advantages to this approach: it solves the shortage problem and makes it more likely that pastors will have genuine leadership skills. Recently, Bishop Fritz Lobinger, of the diocese of Aliwol North in South Africa, has made a similar proposal (cf. Like His Brothers and Sisters: Ordaining Community Leaders). He advocates selecting several men from the community, training them and ordaining them to preside at the Eucharist and other sacraments. They would maintain their family lives and regular jobs. Their ministry would be coordinated by a full-time priest “animator” who reports to the bishop. This proposal would help solve the priest shortage problem and ensure that the ordained leaders are in touch with the real lives of the parishioners. It seems important to keep discussing such radical solutions, while finding creative short term approaches like St. Mark's.

Renewing Parish Life

Dr. Conway presents an inspiring story of a parish that is newly alive. Parishioners have taken hold, met their responsibilities and helped create a viable faith community that meets their spiritual needs and reminds them of the missionary thrust of the Gospel. The response of St. Mark's parishioners reminds us of what dedicated lay people can do to keep parishes open and to make them more vital faith communities. The priest shortage can be a catalyst for appropriating the conciliar teaching on the proper role of the laity in the church that is rooted in solid theology and is not dependent on the number of priests. Contemporary theology emphasizes that all those baptized into the Body of Christ are equal members of the church and are co-responsible for its well-being. All the baptized participate in the universal priesthood of Christ and are called to holiness. All have received charisms, free gifts of the Spirit, to be used for building up the church and spreading the kingdom in the world. Lay people are responsible for the life of the parish by virtue of their baptismal call and not because there are not enough priests. Even parishes with resident pastors need effective leaders in order to carry on the work of Christ in the world. Jesus did not leave his followers with a book of instructions; he sent the Paraclete to be with all his followers so that the whole community could keep alive his memory and gradually appropriate his message. As Vatican II taught, pastors have the task of identifying, encouraging and coordinating the charisms of all the parishioners so that the parish is truly alive with the power of the Spirit. The task of creating a vital faith community, however, is the responsibility of all the baptized members and not just the pastors. Others can also contribute to the creation of energy centers that multiply the effectiveness of the parish. St. Mark's exemplifies the point. Individuals used their Spirit-given gifts and talents to attend to a particular need of the community, and together they saved a the parish and created a more vibrant faith community. Dr. Conway's insightful portrayal of this process provides us all with a much-needed sign of hope in these challenging times.