The challenge of ministry with fewer priests

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By Father Mark A. Eckman

Part 14 of a weekly series

We have an extraordinary gift. And a growing problem.

The extraordinary gift is simple. It is the clergy of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. As of December 2015, we have 225 diocesan priests and 104 deacons in active ministry (101 permanent deacons and three “transitional,” which means they are moving to priestly ordination).

It’s hard to overestimate this gift. The clergy minister to our sacramental and spiritual needs. They provide leadership, strength and guidance in our parishes. They also offer kindness, friendship, prayer and counseling to the faithful and to each other.

The growing problem? The number of priests is declining. Dramatically.

Let’s review where we stand now. Of our 225 active diocesan priests, 36 are eligible to retire right now, and an additional 86 priests will reach retirement age over the next 10 years. Combined, that’s more than half our available priests. The total number of priests today under the age of 60 stands at just 106.

It’s hard to sugarcoat the numbers. With an average of four ordinations a year there will not be nearly enough priests to serve our 200 parishes, let alone additional ministries.

We need to look at this challenge realistically and as a critical part of planning for On Mission for The Church Alive!

There are a few things we can do right now. Begin with prayer. Pray for our clergy. They always need your prayers, and please know we can feel that support every day. It is our strength.

At the same time, keep in mind that our priests are aging. They may not have the health or the level of energy they had in the past. Of the 36 priests actively serving past retirement age, eight are over the age of 80. They want to serve the people of God. But they are getting older. They need your help and, at times, your patience.

Second, support those who are assisting the priests, particularly in our parishes and where priests are serving in multiple parishes. Encourage and support our deacons, deacon administrators, our lay ecclesial ministers and everyone — lay or religious — who serves. That includes the thousands of volunteers in our parishes, schools and institutions who give of their time and talent to build up the church.

Third, support and pray for our seminarians, and for new vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We know that there are more out there who are open to the call of a priestly vocation. But it can be hard to hear in our culture.

If you see someone you believe would make a good priest, encourage him to pray, discern and talk to a priest about a possible vocation. Many priests have said that they pursued the call to the priesthood because others first recognized in them the possibility of a religious vocation.

My list is far from exhaustive. Look for additional ways that you can help out, particularly in your parish. Be prayerful, be supportive, be hopeful.

Live out your vocation every day and the Church Alive! will be real for all of us.

Father Eckman is diocesan episcopal vicar for clergy personnel.

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