By MSGR. JAMES CARTER
In the Nov. 5 edition, this newspaper reported the critical situation in the Diocese of Charleston regarding the projected number of priests who will be available to serve in ministry in the next five years. On March 9, the deans, diocesan staff and other representatives met to review plans developed to prepare for this crisis.
The projection made last fall that we will have one-third fewer priests in five years than we have today remains valid. In the next six months to a year, we expect two or three of our priests to leave for assignments outside of our diocese, and there may be a few who will move from active service to retirement status. On the positive side, Bishop David Thompson is scheduled to ordain three men to the priesthood this summer, and we will interview three potential candidates for ministry in the diocese at our next Priests’ Personnel Board Meeting.
Our efforts to promote vocations continue to bear fruit. We funded a full-time position for an assistant vocations director and hope to have a person in place soon. Bishop Thompson has called for daily prayers during Lent for an increase in vocations, and our vocations directors continue to sponsor discernment weekends for young people considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We may have as many as seven candidates enter seminaries this fall.
Since last fall the deans have been working with the priests in their clusters to find ways to celebrate the sacraments faithfully in a diocese experiencing phenomenal growth in the Catholic population with an alarming decline in priests. Every cluster has submitted preliminary plans to deal with this situation. The clusters are investigating ways to “twin” parishes, eliminate duplicate Mass times, share ministries, and coordinate plans for establishing new parishes as well as initiating building programs in existing parishes. Some clusters are further along than others; some involved the lay people in developing the plans; and some conducted parishioner surveys before considering changes to Mass schedules.
The implications of the priest shortage already are being felt. A few of our parishes and missions without resident priests occasionally are unable to find priests to celebrate Mass on Sunday. In the coming months and years, more parishes will find themselves with priestless Sundays. Diocesan guidelines are being developed for Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, using examples from other dioceses around the country and the world who are dealing with this same issue. We also are consulting canon law, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and other ecclesial sources to make sure that our guidelines are faithful to church doctrine.
As we continue the Lenten pilgrimage and anticipate the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter, I pray that we find renewed strength and inspiration in Christ’s magnanimous gesture of love.
Msgr. James A. Carter is vicar general and vicar for priests for the Diocese of Charleston.