By REV. MSGR. JAMES A. CARTER
(Note: This is the first in a series of four columns about vocations to the priesthood. This column will review the current situation in the Diocese of Charleston. In the next three weeks, the following topics will be addressed: some reasons why we have a shortage of priests, possible solutions and the careful selection of seminary candidates. Because of our current crisis, these columns will address only vocations to the priesthood. This is in no way intended to slight vocations to the consecrated life. Rather, it is a realistic, pragmatic response to a critical need. In fact, religious men and women are keeping the Catholic faith alive in many parishes and missions in South Carolina. We thank God for their ministry with us and will more and more depend on their dedicated and faithful service.)
This Sunday, Jan. 10, begins Vocation Awareness Week for the Catholic Church in the United States.
If ever there was a need for vocation awareness, it is here and now in the Diocese of Charleston. This newspaper first reported last November our most distressing five-year outlook.
By the year 2004, and possibly very sooner, we will have one-third fewer priests available for parish assignment in the Diocese of Charleston. In those five years, we expect the Catholic population to increase by 9.4 percent from 116,726 to 124,226.
Today we have 92 priests assigned to the diocese’s 112 parishes. By 2004, we will have 56 priests for assignment and will in all probability have several new, large parishes. The 41 priests who will leave parish ministry will be 70 years old, or older, the retirement age for priests. Some religious order priests will be called to service in other areas. A few will leave to fulfill military obligations and some will die.
The 56 remaining priests include five men currently in seminary training, who we hope will be ordained in the next five years. Obviously, we will not be able to even maintain the inadequate status quo much less the demands of a rapidly growing Catholic population.
Your pastor or pastoral administrator, the dean of your deanery, the diocesan staff, Bishop Thompson and I are doing everything we can to prepare for this very real crisis which is incumbant upon us. In each deanery, the parishes have been formed into teams we call “clusters.” I encourage you, if you do not already know, to find out the cluster to which your parish belongs. This cluster arrangement is serving as the foundation for planning for a future with drastically fewer priests.
Already, some clusters have been told they will have one less priest within the next six months. Others, who are in high-growth areas, have been asked to plan to open a new parish but with no more priests. All the clusters have been asked to look for ways for the parishes to share their ministries and gifts with each other. For example, clusters have been asked to examine Mass schedules and eliminate duplication where possible. Some clusters may plan to have one R.C.I.A. program for the cluster instead of one in each parish. Some may decide to improve and expand youth ministry by bringing all the parishes’ youth activities under one director.
By Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday, each cluster will submit a short-range plan to their dean. These plans will be reviewed and long-range planning will begin.
If we were not a people of hope, the future would look bleak indeed. But, as we Catholics in South Carolina look to the year 2000, we do so with the conviction that our God will not leave us orphans. He will raise up leaders from among us to help us build up his kingdom on earth.
Let us all commit to this future full of hope with daily prayer for an increase in vocations to the priesthood in our diocese.
Msgr. Carter is Vicar General and Vicar for Priests for the diocese.