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Issue Date:  March 5, 2004

Bishops, priests discuss ways to cope with shortage


While hundreds of priests around the country have written letters to Bishop Wilton Gregory urging him to begin an open discussion of the ordination of married men as a possible solution to the currently critical shortage of priests, Auxiliary Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan of Brooklyn, N.Y., views the solution more in terms of quality of service than quantity of vocations.

At a recent meeting with 20 members of Voice of the Ordained in the diocese, Sullivan dismissed the notion that a married clergy, the return of laicized priests or female priesthood are solutions to the priest shortage. “We can’t deal with things that we can’t change,” he noted. “Right now, those issues are not part of the rules.”

Instead, he pointed to a larger role for the laity and deacons as a partial solution to the problem. At the present time, there are 362 active priests with a median age of 57 in the Brooklyn diocese, which has 1.8 million Catholics in 217 parishes.

Noting that his thoughts on the subject of a priest shortage are personal and not the official position of the diocese, Sullivan said that priests currently working in the diocesan curia, in schools and seminaries, and in hospitals and prisons as chaplains could be given dual assignments or else reassigned to parish work with their previous duties reassigned to salaried, full-time deacons, as well as lay people and religious who could also be paid to administer parishes. In all of that, “the principal role of the priest would be to teach, to energize and to motivate.”

He also mentioned the possibility of raising the retirement age of priests and involving some retired priests in parish ministry.

Sullivan suggested restructuring the metropolitan seminary system. “Today you can fit all the seminarians into the wing of one seminary,” he said. The Brooklyn diocese currently has 18 seminarians studying in the local seminary and in Rome. He also said the prep seminary should be eliminated, and that a metropolitan seminary could be set up to include seminarians from New Jersey and Connecticut. He suggested the seminary be associated with a local university so that the seminarians could mix with other students of their age.

“We have to decide, as priests, what we can and cannot do,” he said. “The problem is that people think that we can do everything and the reality is that we can’t. We lack an integrated system of planning so we should get the right system of support so that it’s not done just by priests. We have to pay attention to the theology of the laity and the process should be one of inclusion and participation. We have to face what we can do with what we have and there are things that we can do differently without changing the rules. The issue is more a shortage of quality than of quantity.

“Today, the priority of the poor is a must for priests and the local parish in the diocese,” he added. “The biggest challenge is outreach so that the real criterion for priests is fidelity and not success. We’re going to have fewer institutions in the church in the future so that we have to do more as a parish community to help the family and, with today’s economic pressures, help the parents.”

In answer to a question about bringing the issue to the attention of Rome, Sullivan said, “We have to make it known as a severe pastoral problem and, in this instance, we should seek cooperation rather than confrontation. Dialogue is not just for the sake of dialogue but as a means of leading to something.”

Recently, the Brooklyn Voice of the Ordained sent a letter signed by 121 Brooklyn priests to Gregory, president of the U.S bishops’ conference, in support of the Milwaukee priests and their appeal for the ordination of married men.

Dick Ryan is a freelance writer living in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, March 5, 2004

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