Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Priestless Sunday"

These days, much of the nation might be taken with one Alaskan phenom (who had her first cheesesteak yesterday)... but back home in the Bush, the US church's lone remaining missionary diocese is using this Sunday to underscore an even broader trend:
Dubbed “Priestless Sunday,” next weekend will find parish leaders filling the pulpits at Roman Catholic churches all around Fairbanks and the road systems.

No, the urban parish priests haven’t all taken vacations at the same time. Instead, they will be ministering in rural parishes across the sprawling Fairbanks Catholic Diocese, which encompasses almost a half million square miles north of the Alaska Range to the Arctic Ocean and west to the Bering Sea.

Priestless Sunday is the product of “thinking outside the box,” and a creative attempt to deal with the acute shortage of Roman Catholic priests, explained Robert Hannon, special assistant to the Bishop Donald Kettler.

Deacons and lay presiders will be conducting communion services — Celebration of the Word with Holy Communion — both Saturday and Sunday. It is not Mass but will satisfy the Catholic obligation to attend Mass.

Kettler has personally been preparing urban parishioners for next weekend, visiting each of the local parishes for town meeting style gatherings and explaining the twofold goal of Priestless Sunday: to establish a sister parish program that is not just priest to community but community to community.

“I can’t say they were happy about doing this, but they understood the necessity of it because of the shortage of priests,” Kettler said.

The diocese has only 17 priests, but serves approximately 16,000 Catholics spread out across 47 parishes, the vast majority of which are only reachable by airplane most of the year. It’s the norm for priests serving in outlying areas to divide their ministry among six to eight rural parishes. Rural churches will have a visiting priest to celebrate Mass about once every six weeks, Kettler said.

Kettler and eight local priests will be flying out at the end of next week to spend three or four days in Bush ministry.

Considering fuel costs have doubled since last year, the weekend program is not inexpensive.
(SVILUPPO: Thanks to the several readers who noted that, contrary to the above article's claim, the Mass obligation is dispensed where Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest are celebrated.)

...meanwhile, in Razorback Country, newly-ordained Bishop Tony Taylor of Little Rock recently recalled how experiencing the bigger picture made his fears "disappear completely":
[T]here was a lot to be concerned about as a seminarian in the 1970s. There was a lot of turmoil. Many priests and nuns were abandoning their vocations -- more were leaving than entering, even as the number of Catholics was growing rapidly in Oklahoma -- just like in Arkansas.

Thousands of Catholic immigrants were arriving from Vietnam and from Mexico. Soon there would be twice as many Catholics served by half as many priests. Wasn't this growing shortage of clergy something to be worried about?

Some people acted like the Church was about to collapse, but I never thought that way, for two reasons: 1) my trust in God's providence, and 2) something I learned as a transitional deacon in Kenya the summer of 1979.

First, I have a lot of trust in God's providence -- possibly thanks to growing up in a secure, faith-filled home -- and so thankfully, I'm just not much of a worrier.

I knew that if I did God's will, that was all that was required ... and anyway, the results are in God's hands, not mine.

And, second, the parish I served in Kenya my deacon summer had 40,000 Catholics and just two priests -- that would be like having all of Arkansas served by six priests, except territorially the parish was more like the size of Pulaski County [roughly 880 square miles/2,000 square km].

This parish had four churches and 28 chapels where Mass was celebrated at least once every six weeks, run by 32 specially trained catechists who led Communion Services on the Sundays when the priests were celebrating Mass elsewhere. These catechists were like unofficial permanent deacons and were really the backbone of the ministerial life of this huge parish. They also had 32 choirs, one for each church or chapel.

But what most astounded me was that 85 percent of the parishioners were at worship every weekend -- at Mass or at a Communion Service -- all this with just two priests serving 40,000 Catholics. With that, my fear of the American clergy shortage disappeared completely.

If Kenyan Catholics, who have so little, can do so much with a lot of faith and a little creativity, I knew we really didn't have anything to worry about here. If we are faithful and do the best we can, God will provide.
However they're going about it, it's working -- Arkansas' statewide diocese of 112,000 is reporting its biggest contingent in formation since 1966.

History's taught us well, friends, that circuit-riding's never been the end of the project... but, if anything, how it's been born -- or, when necessary, born again.

After all, it did just start with 12, eh?