Syracuse Bishop Moynihan Responds to Priest Shortage by Equipping
the Saints for the Work of Ministry
By Dorothy Valerian
We continue our series of reports on how dioceses throughout
the United States are planning for fewer priests.
On the Feast of All Saints last year, Catholics in the Diocese
of Syracuse, New York, heard from their bishop about how he planned
to deal with the declining numbers of priests and religious, shifting
population patterns, and the resulting changes they could expect
to take place in their local church. A booklet highlighting the
focal points of Bishop James Moynihans pastoral letter Equipping
the Saints for the Work of Ministry was mailed to the households
of 350,000 Catholics in the seven-county diocese. The entire 16-page
document was available at the dioceses 170 parish churches
and 13 missions.
The title and tone of the pastoral letter echoes St.Pauls
reflection on the gifts given by the Spirit to each in the Christian
community to build up the body of Christ (Eph.4: 7,12) and recalls
the Vatican II Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity
and its renewed understanding that ministry is rooted in baptism.
In this light, Moynihan points to increased lay participation in
his diocese, including more than 1300 women and men commissioned
through the diocesan Formation for Ministry program.
Even as the number of its lay ministers increases, the Syracuse
diocese is experiencing declining numbers of priests and religious.
At the end of 1974, there were 366 full-time diocesan priests;
now there are 197, a 46% decrease. Moreover, the decline is happening
at an accelerated pace. From 1974 to 1992, there was a loss of
60 priests. In half that time, from 1992 to 2001, the diocese lost
an additional 60. Nor is the prognosis for the future very
encouraging, Moynihan told his people, projecting no more
than 158 active priests for the diocese in five years.
The bishop affirms that the Eucharist is at the heart of
our tradition, essential to our identity as Roman Catholics. Yet,
the place most people will first experience the reality of fewer
priests is in fewer celebrations of the Eucharist. Moynihan
encourages neighboring parishes to coordinate and consolidate their
mass schedules, and looks for other alternatives. Soon I
will ask that deacons, and those sisters and other members of the
faithful designated by pastors, be trained to lead Sunday Celebrations
in the Absence of a Priest. These celebrations are authorized in
a directory issued from the Vatican by the Congregation for Divine
Worship in June 1988.
Regarding the administration of other sacraments and rites of
the church, Moynihan emphasizes that the church clearly allows
and encourages deacons and some nonordained ministers to be presiders
in its sacramental life. Participation in the ministries
of the church is far more varied than local practice in recent
years might suggest, he says.
The Syracuse bishop cautions against short-term decisions
that need to be repeatedly revisited and offers assurance
that the issues we are discussing are not faith challenges;
they are institutional and structural challenges.
_the signs of the times seem to be inviting us to be as
creative in fashioning the church of the third millennium as were
our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, says Moynihan.
We will need to work together to invite many to ministry,
to offer creative solutions to complex challenges and to be committed
to a changing church.
(The full text of Bishop James Moynihans pastoral letter
is reprinted in Origins January 17, 2002.)