PORT HENRY-Approximately 80 parishioners from Catholic churches in the Essex Deanery gathered in Port Henry March 20 to learn more about the Diocesan planning due to the pending shortage of priests. Sister Jennifer Votraw, who serves as the Planning Committee Director, presented an overview to bring parish members up to date on the current direction of the committee and to obtain input from those in attendance.
With age being the single most important factor, the Diocese of Ogdensburg was served by 92 resident pastors in 1998, according to Votraw. In 2011, their numbers were reduced to 62, and within the next 10 years, it is anticipated that number will drop to approximately 40 resident pastors serving over 100 parishes, covering 12,000 square miles.
Eighty-five percent of the parishes currently share a pastor. Votraw pointed out that there will be 22 parishes that will not have a resident pastor, which may result in the closing or reduction of liturgical services provided at some churches. In the past 12 years, 12 churches have merged at the request of the parishioners making up those churches.
Currently, the Essex Deanery is made up of churches in Crown Point, Elizabethtown, Olmstedville, Port Henry, Schroon Lake, Ticonderoga, Essex, Westport and Willsboro. Five resident pastors currently serve the deanery. Within 10 years, the diocese and the parishioners may be forced to consider how those communities will be served with as little as three resident pastors. Long-term plans call for pastors to be located in Elizabethtown, Port Henry and Ticonderoga with the parishes sharing their services.
While no plans have been finalized, the reality of an aging priest population, not just in the Ogdensburg Diocese but nationwide, must be faced by the church. It anticipates a 35 percent reduction in priests within the next 25 years. At the same time, growth in the overall Catholic population is expected. Votraw said that the Midwest region of the United States has been faced with a priest shortage for years and has still managed to serve the faithful.
As one parishioner pointed out, the situation is not unlike the story of the Loaves of Bread and Fishes, where Christ fed thousands with only seven loaves of bread and five fishes. Father Peter Riani, Essex Dean, pointed out that the discussion needs to be focused on maintaining a vibrant parish community regardless of the location residence of the priest. It is expected that lay members of the church will need to assist in greater ways than in the past. Currently, the diocese has more than 800 commissioned lay ministers.
Discussion from those in attendance touched on subjects such as allowing priests to marry, women priests, the need for more deacons and their role in a communion service, Episcopal priests who are married and have converted to Catholicism, using technology that would allow for the Mass to be viewed live via the Internet at churches, realigning the deanery boundaries, and encouraging greater youth participation in the church.
Votraw encouraged the discussions to be taken back to each parish and continue to send their thoughts and suggestions to her in Ogdensburg.
Interested parties may find more information regarding the Diocesan Planning Committee at www.dioogdensburg.org/planning/Process.html and may email Sister Votraw at firstname.lastname@example.org.