The Deacon's Bench

An archdiocese that for generations had one of the most vibrant and celebrated Catholic populations in America is about to set a surprising precedent.

From the Boston Globe:

The Archdiocese of Boston, facing a growing shortage of priests but reluctant to close more churches, plans to name one pastor to oversee three parishes in the historically Catholic neighborhood of Dorchester, a practice never before used in Boston.

The three-parish pastorate, already common in much of the Midwest, provides a window into the future shape of Catholicism in Eastern Massachusetts. Scholars say that 40 percent of priests in America already serve more than one parish, but the phenomenon has been rare in the urban Northeast, where the high Catholic population for decades generated a high number of priests.

Now inexorable demographic shifts are catching up with the Archdiocese of Boston, where the priest population is getting smaller and older, the number of people who identify as Catholic is declining, and many churchgoing Catholics have migrated away from the urban centers where most churches are located. The archdiocese already has 14 priests who oversee two parishes; the Rev. John J. Ahern will be the first to oversee three when he takes over Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Holy Family, and St. Peter parishes in May.

“The reality is that in the very near future we will not have the number of priests to meet the number of parishes we have, and so we need to be efficient and effective in the use of our resources,” said the Rev. Richard M. Erikson, vicar general of the archdiocese. “This is, on the one hand, a continuation of a trend that has already begun in the archdiocese, but it is also a preview of what we expect to be happening down the road.”

The major benefit to assigning multiple parishes to a priest is that it allows the diocese to avoid closing the parishes. But the move can be stressful and exhausting for the priest, who must find a way to juggle all the sacramental needs – baptisms, weddings, funerals, and Masses – at multiple locations, while trying to get to know parishioners and minister to them in less formal ways.

“It’s challenging, and it can be frustrating and lonely if you don’t prioritize,” said the Rev. Caleb Vogel, a 31-year-old priest who oversees three parishes and three missions over 100 square miles in southeastern Idaho. “But when I was a seminarian I worked in Michoacan, Mexico, and a priest there had 13 parishes. We in the US have been spoiled, having this one-priest-per-parish thing. It’s just a matter of perspective.”

Across the country, many dioceses have long assigned priests to multiple parishes. Many of the multiparish priests are in rural areas with small Catholic populations, but some are in urban areas; the Seattle Archdiocese has at least a dozen priests who oversee three parishes, including some in the urban areas of Seattle and Tacoma.

“We on the East Coast have not been hit by the problem as much as the Midwest, where in some places 90 percent of parishes share a pastor, but it’s coming,” said Charles E. Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University. “The alternative would be to close parishes, especially inner-city parishes that are close to one another, but Catholics have a real love for their parishes and prefer this to seeing their parishes close.”

Continue at the link for the rest.

PHOTO: The Rev. Jack Ahern at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Brookline. He will oversee three parishes in Dorchester. Photo by Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe.

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