The Deacon's Bench

It used to be the Maytag repairman had the loneliest job on earth. Now, according to this report from Connecticut, he may have some competition:

The rectory is very peaceful — a little too peaceful, if the Rev. Joseph Looney is being honest about it.

Looney has been stationed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem since July, and lives behind the church in a small ranch house surrounded by trees and a deep backyard of grass.

When the phone rings, or a parishioner drops by to pick something up, the sound cuts through the stillness so abruptly it makes you jump. Occasionally, there’s muffled bird song outside the window, or a truck rumbling by, but that’s about it.

“I’ve never lived in the suburbs before, so it’s very quiet,” Looney says, looking around his sparsely furnished living room. “I’ll have to find some way to deal with it or it will get very lonely.”

Looney is not alone in his loneliness.

Of the 213 parishes in the Hartford archdiocese, 123 are led by a single priest, and that number is expected to increase if the clergy shortage in the Roman Catholic Church worsens over the next decade, as predicted.

It’s meant dramatic changes for Looney, who began his ministry in 1967. He was assigned early on to a parish in New Britain, where he was one of four priests living and working in the rectory. A cook prepared “nice meals” every day and their two-room suites were kept clean by a housekeeper.

More important than the daily care, though, was the fellowship of other priests.

“I had lots of hopes and dreams, especially about being able to talk to other priests about their work and their relationships with God,” Looney says. “Having that companionship around the table was important.”

But the number of diocesan priests in the Hartford archdiocese has dropped sharply, falling to 372 in 2007, compared with 585 in 1969, according to the archdiocese. Nationally, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there were 35,925 ordained diocesan priests in 1965. In 2007, the number was 28,462.

Not only is an entire generation of men aging out of the priesthood, but fewer young men are joining its ranks. When Looney was ordained, for example, he was one of 21 young men joining the Hartford archdiocese. In 2006, he says, the archdiocese ordained only six new priests — and that was the largest number in years.

With this drop in clergy have come changes for both parishioners and priests as Catholic churches and schools across the nation have been combined or closed.

And while the loss of a full-time priest or a reduction in the number of Masses is stressful for Catholic parishioners, it is arguably harder on the priests, who are celibate.

“Loneliness was often cited as a reason for men leaving the priesthood, particularly from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s,” says Andrew Walsh, associate director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College.

“But the way it presents itself is much more forceful these days.”

There’s much more at the link. Let’s keep these men in our prayers. This is an aspect of the priesthood we often don’t think about.

Photo: Rev. Joseph Looney, by Stephen Dunn

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