Sunday, May 2, 2004

Keeping the faith

Helen Lester-Smith says a prayer with her family
Helen Lester-Smith says a prayer with her family, Adrian, 12, and husband Frazier, at the dinner table of their East Walnut Hills home Sunday, April 18, 2004. Lester-Smith, a devout Catholic who works (with her husband) to keep her church going strong in the face of a priest shortage is the center of a package running in Forum. Photo by Craig Ruttle/Cincinnati Enquirer
(Craig Ruttle photo)

Catherine Ampfer, a stay-at-home mom who attends St. Catherine of Siena in Fort Thomas, Ky.

Christopher Hurlburt, a lawyer who attends St. Thomas More parish in Withamsville, Ohio.

Anne Shaffer, a Westwood nurse who attends St. Teresa of Avila

Joel Handorf, a financial services account vice president who attends St. John Fisher church in Newtown

Savio Russo, an ex-priest, now a nurse manager, who attends Nativity in Pleasant Ridge

Helen Lester-Smith, a secretary-receptionist who attends Holy Name in Mt. Auburn

Walter White, advertising director, attends St. Mark Church in Evanston

Paul Meisenhelder, a human services manager who attends St. Catherine of Siena in Ft. Thomas

Jeff Siefke, a Delhi electrical engineer who attends Our Lady of Victory

Elizabeth Slatt, print and media buyer in Westwood, doesn't belong to a parish

Donald Parks, a Kings Mills retiree who attends St. Margaret of York

A panel of priests known as the Futures Committee predicts that only 100 priests will serve the Archdiocese of Cincinnati by 2010. That's just half the number of priests now serving the archdiocese, one of the largest in the nation with 515,000 Catholics in 19 counties. To deal with the shortage, the committee recommends:

• Moving more aggressively to close or consolidate parishes.

• Reducing the number of daily and Sunday Masses.

• Replacing some Masses with "Sunday celebrations" that feature lay ministers instead of priests.

• Cutting back on priests' obligations, including teaching religion classes and visiting the sick.

• Relying more heavily on lay ministers or deacons to preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals.

They're saddened that parishes are closing and that more young men aren't being ordained as priests. But they also welcome new roles for lay people, and nearly every one has unlimited confidence in the future of the church. Thirteen Catholics from across the region met recently at the Enquirer to talk about changes in the church. Here are excerpts of the conversation, led by reporters Denise Smith Amos and Dan Horn:

How important are priests in your Catholic faith?

Ampfer: "The one thing that the priest does that a lay person can't do is bless the Eucharist (the sacrament of Holy Communion). And that's why priests are essential, because the Eucharist is the center of our Church. It's something they don't have at the Baptist church down the street. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be Catholic."

Weibel: "I can't imagine a Catholic church being a Catholic church without the sacramental procession that we have, and that's impossible without the ordained priests that we have."

Hurlburt: "I personally miss how available priests were in the past. Everything with a priest now has become more perfunctory. They're spread so thin. I don't have a personal relationship with our parish priests, the way I had in the past."

Shaffer: "I have a problem with priests who ... can't say more than two Masses (a week). Why not? Isn't that what we need you for? It's one of those things no one else can do."

Brinker: The Church, to me, because of the various places I've been, has been like a framework, a latticework of faith I can depend on. And I go back to that latticework whenever I have to make decisions about things I've never come across before."


With fewer priests, can lay people take a bigger role?

Russo: "Everybody in this room was raised in the heirarchical, institutional Church. And the priest was the leader. And the bishop was his boss. And it went up the line. Now, with the shortage of priests, the real notion of church is coming out, which is that the church is all of us. And we're going to have to take the lead."

Lester-Smith: "You have to do the work. You can't just sit in the pew any more, come in and do your thing for an hour and then leave."


How can Catholics best deal with churches that are closing and parishes that are merging?

Ampfer: "They're not going to be able to go to the building that they've gone to for 40 years. If I have to drive two hours to go to Mass, I would find a Mass. Because that is the source and summit of our faith."

Meisenhelder: "The church definitely needs to get better at the merger thing. There were a lot of mergers in the urban areas of Northern Kentucky that were handled so poorly that the pain never goes away."


What priestly function would be hardest to lose?

Siefke: "My niece was baptized by a deacon and, after that service, I was fine with it.... If I planned to have more children, I'd have no problem with them being baptized by a deacon ... But weddings and funerals, that would be very hard to take, not having a funeral Mass."

Slatt: "When you lose a loved one, you always say, 'Why did God do this to me?' You need your family. You need your community. You need that role of the Catholic Church to console you, to say, 'Life doesn't end here.'... If they omitted that, that would just be a terrible loss. I get emotional just thinking about that."

Hurlburt: My wife and I lost a daughter recently. The funeral Mass just meant a lot. We had all of our friends there, a lot of people from the parish. It would be awful to cheat a family out of that."


Can lay people deliver sermons, called homilies, at Mass?

Hurlburt: "Scriptural interpretation of any sort should be left to the priest, or you'll get divergent views ... I hear a lot of very funny interpretations of scriptures from other lay Catholics.... Some of these men who have been through training could give a homily, and I would love to hear a homily out of a woman."

Parks: "I wouldn't have a problem with a qualified layman giving a sermon. There are men and women who are qualified to get up there and preach and could probably do a heck of a lot better job than a lot of the priests that I know."


Should women be ordained as priests?

Parks: "The Blessed Mother, Christ's own mother, was not given that privilege... If she was not given the honor and privilege by Jesus, her son, to do this, I don't see how we can change that today."

Meisenhelder: "This was set up by Jesus Christ, and we can't change what Jesus Christ set up."

Slatt: "Just because Christ was a man, that doesn't necessarily mean that only a man can consecrate the Eucharist."

Hurlburt: "We're not progressive enough. I don't think women are encouraged to be so visibly involved with the faith."

Ampfer: "I see how women can be involved in the Church; they can be mothers. They need to nurture. That may sound very old-fashioned and backwards, but that is the most important thing we women can do: Be mothers to nurture humanity."


What's the future for recruiting priests and attracting young people to religious service?

White: "If you talk about these changes being enacted within the church, you can just about forget most of the kids that you're trying to influence; they're already distant as it is. And every day that they look at MTV and whatever else they look at, they continue to create a distance between themselves and religion."

Shaffer: "There are so many people out there with so much to give, and we're not getting it...The more lay people have to be involved, the more your little bitty kids are going to grow up being involved. That's all they're going to know."

Meisenhelder: "I look for a period, if not in our lifetime, in our children's lifetime for sure, when they're actually building new churches in the inner city."

Handorf: "To this point in my life, no one ever said, 'Have you ever thought of becoming a priest?' There's no national recruiting effort. You say there's no priests. Well, no one is asking people to become priests."

Ampfer: "I have two boys, and every day I tell them, 'You can be a priest.'''


Should the Church allow priests to marry and/or suspend celibacy vows?

Weibel: "I see married priests as probable.. but that's going to introduce a whole new class of problems. Today, we have priests and we have pedophilia as a problem. And the Protestant church has adultery as a problem among its ministers. All we're going to do is exchange sinfulness."

Russo: "The Church has to breathe fresh air back into the Catholic universe (with) optional celibacy and women taking a greater role and using the talents of the members of the church, really define what "church" means... I think that that has to come from the people... You have to keep voicing what the mission of the Church is, and the mission is universal."

Catholics' lives are changing
He left celibate priesthood
Victim of the past
Vision of the future
Women finding roles

Priests pray for strength
Oldest, youngest priest share common devotion

Priests, nuns vanishing from classroom

Archbishop: 'You have to change'
Enquirer's Catholic panel

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