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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 Moynihan’s 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 diocese’s 170 parish churches and 13 missions.

The title and tone of the pastoral letter echoes St.Paul’s 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 Moynihan’s pastoral letter is reprinted in Origins January 17, 2002.)




Spring 2002



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