A6721 BC-EXP-POPE-VISIT-1STLD- 04-13 0474 routed by clinton
CATHOLICS CONCERNED OVER STATE OF CHURCH IN U.S.
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
(Eds: Subs to REFINE lede; note new hed)
(This article is part of TIMES EXPRESS. It is a condensed version of a story that will appear in tomorrow’s New York Times.)
c.2008 New York Times News Service
Less than two weeks ago, as final preparations were being made for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States, the bishop of Camden, N.J., announced plans to close or merge nearly half the parishes in his diocese. Meanwhile, Catholics in New Orleans; Boston; New York; Toledo, Ohio; and nearly three dozen other dioceses are mourning the loss of parishes and parochial schools they grew up in.
So when the pope arrives in the United States on Tuesday, he will find an American church in which many Catholics are eager not only for his spiritual guidance, but also for his acknowledgment that their church is going through a time of pain and uncertainty.
Hundreds of parishes are being closed and consolidated, and the reasons are usually intertwined with the other big challenges facing the church: a shortage of priests, fallout from the sexual abuse scandal, insufficient funds to maintain aging churches, demographic changes and sometimes not enough people attending Mass to justify keeping parishes open. And yet for most observant Catholics their primary experience of the church is their local parish.
"It’s frustrating because you start to see the bishop as the enemy, and it puts you where you’re conflicted," said Leah Vassallo, a lawyer whose parish in Malaga, N.J., is among those slated to be closed. "Obviously you don’t want to give up your faith or go to a different religion, or not go to church at all. But it does disenfranchise you. We’re going to be a lot more hesitant before we give money to the church."
This will be the first visit by any pope since the sexual abuse scandal that erupted in 2002, taking a spiritual, emotional and financial toll on Catholics across the country. One of the scandal’s repercussions is that lay Catholics across the country are demanding more financial accountability from their bishops and more control over decisions, especially when it comes to closing parishes.
The pope is expected to praise the American church’s vibrancy during his visit, and there is much for the church to celebrate. But most priests, and even many bishops, will acknowledge the woes.
The number of priests ordained in 2007 fell to 456, less than half the number of new priests in 1965.
"There’s a crisis," said William V. D’Antonio, a fellow of the Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America. "We’re running out of priests. The average age of priests currently active is over 60. We have recruitment of new priests way below replacement level."