Diocese projects a severe priest shortage by 2004

Five years from now there will be one-third fewer priests available for parish assignments in the Diocese of Charleston than there are today

This estimate was developed by Msgr. James Carter, vicar general and chairman of the personnel committee, the four deans, representatives of the Charleston peninsular parishes and diocesan support staff during a meeting at the Chancery on Oct. 27.

Today, there are 92 priests assigned to the diocese’s 112 parishes and missions. These are priests from the Diocese of Charleston, religious order priests and priests on loan from other dioceses.

By 2004, 41 of these 92 priests will no longer be available to accept parish assignments in the diocese. Many will be 70 years old, the retirement age for diocesan priests, or older. Some will be religious order priests whose superiors, experiencing a shortage of their own, will call them to serve in other places. A few will leave to fulfill military obligations.

“On the bright side, we hope to have at least five of our seminarians ordained to the priesthood,” said Msgr. Carter. “But, these five will not replace the many priests who will retire.”

This significant decline in priests comes at a time when the number of Catholics in South Carolina is growing rapidly.

“We expect to have 56 priests serving in parishes in South Carolina in five years,” Msgr. Carter said. “During that same time period, we anticipate the need to open at least four new, and very large, parishes. We have been conservative in reaching these numbers, so as time goes by, our situation could become more critical.”

The Midlands deanery can expect a net loss of 15 priests; the Coastal deanery, 11; the Piedmont deanery, 11; and the Pee Dee deanery, four.

“This disturbing news calls us to three things: prayer, presence and preparation,” wrote Bishop David Thompson in a Nov. 2 letter to the priests and pastoral administrators in the diocese. He asked the priests and pastoral administrators to pray for “an increase in vocations and for the strength and inspiration we need to minister to God’s people in the Diocese of Charleston into the new millennium.”

The Bishop asked the priests and pastoral administrators to be present to each other in deanery and cluster meetings called to plan for the future. “Together, in a spirit of unity and cooperation, we shall be able to take the prudent and necessary actions called for by this situation,” wrote the Bishop.

“I want each of us to make this coming season of Advent a time of special preparation for the time we have left to serve the Church of Charleston,” the Bishop wrote. “Whether we have just a few months or many years, only God knows. We are required by our Baptism and our vocation to use wisely the time and talents God has given us.”

The Bishop asked the priests and pastoral administrators to give careful attention to the actions that must be taken in the next six months to prepare for the future. Within the deanery structure, clusters of parishes will be asked to work together to reschedule Masses to eliminate duplication, prepare proposals for sharing ministries between parishes, and develop and implement a communications plan to inform parishioners about the changes that will take place in the very near future.

“The actions pastors are being asked to take are based on the experience of the Charleston Peninsular cluster,” Msgr. Carter said. “Several months ago we told those pastors to prepare for one less priest on the peninsula. They have rearranged Mass schedules, ‘twinned’ parishes for close working relationships, are planning to share ministries and have informed their parishioners that changes are coming.”

“Between now and the beginning of Lent, every pastor and pastoral administrator in the diocese will be working together on ways to respond to immediate, critical needs,” Msgr. Carter said. “During Lent and beyond, we will be looking five years down the road and making the personnel and other changes necessary to help priests use wisely our time in service to God, his church and his people.”