Membership decline and shortage of priests among the reasons.

The Catholic Diocese of Youngstown is proposing changes in how priests serve area churches and how parishes operate.

In a diocesan-wide letter, Bishop George V. Murry notes the "pastoral planning proposal" comes in response to a critical shortage of priests and a steep decline in membership and participation.

Murry's letter cites three key challenges:


The diocese has fewer parishioners than in 2000 due to economics and deaths outpacing births; Ohio's population is projected to decline further over the next decade.

Since 2000, parish membership has fallen by 36 percent, and regular weekend Mass attendance has plummeted by 60 percent.

The number of baptisms, confirmations and marriages have fallen by 30 percent over the same time period.

The plan recommends dividing the six-county diocese into "pastoral regions" to address the shortage of available priests, who have declined by 43 percent since 2000.

At least six current priests are set to retire this summer, and 10 active priests are over age 70.

The proposal was formed by a committee of the Diocesan Priests' Council and reviewed by the Priests’ Council and the Diocesan Pastoral Council, which is made up of laypeople.

Pete Schafer, director of the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Pastoral Planning, said a plan has been discussed since 2009 as part of an overall reconfiguration.

"We came to a point in the fall where we saw the number of priests retiring the near future, and we knew really needed to start a round of planning and notifying people," he said.

Stark numbers

Under the proposal, 17 regions would consist of multiple parishes that would share administration and clergy. Stark County's Catholic churches would fall under four regions.

"People didn't realize how dire the situation was, especially when you look over the last 20 years," Schafer said. "The numbers are stark. We hope people see this as a call to action to take their faith a little more seriously."

The Rev. Patrick Manning, associate professor of theology at Walsh University in North Canton, said he's impressed that the diocese is basing the proposal on hard statistics and not the existential.

 

"The diocese has done its research on parish attendance, the age of priests, and the number of young men being ordained and in seminary," he said. "The numbers make it clear that some sort of adjustment has to be made.

"On the positive side, it's going to allow more laypeople who are very competent  in a number of areas to step forward and run the business side so priests can do what they were intended to do. When the numbers go down, the upside is, those who stay are going to be committed and much more fervent."

"Lone Rangers"

Msgr. Lewis Gaetano, pastor of Christ the Servant parish in Canton, said the proposal offers the church an opportunity for renewal and reform in keeping with the Second Vatican Council.

"I believe that given the current events within the church that challenges our credibility, I believe that it calls us, most especially we as pastors of our parishes, to a renewed commitment and authenticity in our own lives," he said. "Above all, given our place in time and history, and following the example of Christ, we need to have both feet on ground and get down to earth sharing in God’s project for this world, creating a church at the service of equality, freedom, opportunity, and participation for all of humanity moving beyond the four walls of the church building into the four corners of the earth."

Murry's letter states that under church law, priests are to be limited to three Masses over a weekend. Of the 234 Masses that are celebrated in the diocese each weekend, 77 percent of the churches are half-full.

Gaetano said his parish celebrates one on Saturday and two on Sunday.

"The Second Vatican Council in its reform of the liturgy called for full and active participation in our liturgical celebrations," he said. "It is a real challenge to truly celebrate Sunday liturgy with a church that is half-full, and a congregation scattered throughout the space. This is a reasoned and timely recommendation."

Manning said it's not unusual for a priest to celebrate more than three Masses out of "pastoral necessity."

"I've done it myself," he said, adding that the law's intent is to ensure that celebrating the Mass doesn't become rote.

Manning said that the plan also holds the potential for priests to enjoy more priestly prayer and partnerships. As it stands, many feel like "Lone Rangers."

What's next?

Following Easter, each region will begin to meet with the goal of recommending to Murry its specific plans for collaborating on staff, programs, events and outreach.

"We still want to keep parishes' identities as much as possible," Schafer said. "There's quite a lot of diversity, for instance, between rural and city parishes. We need our parishioners and pastors to work together to combine resources as much as possible to continue the work of the church."

Schafer stressed that it's early in the process, and that no decisions have been made as to where Masses will be celebrated or how resources will be shared.

"The idea is the next step will be local parishes themselves will look at those guidelines and how many priests are available," he said. "They will make their proposals to the bishop on how they see things best working in their regions. The final decision will be with bishop, but we believe decisions are best recommended form the local level."

To read Murry's full letter, visit doy.org.

Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @cgoshayREP