Reprinted from Dallas Morning News. Used with permission.

If his sweetheart Judy had said "yes" when he proposed, Henry Petter never would have become a Roman Catholic priest. But she said "maybe," so he joined the Air Force and played guitar in a church group while other airmen fooled around off base.

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The airmen laughed in disbelief when he told them how he avoided the sexually transmitted diseases they'd caught. "I keep my pants zipped," he said, and, in time, they knew that it was true. After the service, Judy was ready to marry, but he was bound for the seminary.

Father Petter, 54, has run in the Boston and New York marathons, and the White Rock event in Dallas is an annual rite. But his most challenging race, the one that only grows more demanding, is being a parish priest.

With the number of Catholics growing, and the number of clergy shrinking, priests in the United States are undergoing a time of radical transition. Priests are resigning, retiring and dying at a rate faster than they're being ordained.

The nation's largest denomination loses nearly 350 priests ever year, leaving 13 percent of parishes without a resident priest. But it gains a million new Catholics annually, making the need for priests more acute, and the demands on them more staggering.

"What keeps me going is now and then I get it right," said Father Petter, a quick wit who, at 5'6", satirizes the problems of short priests in the same breath as the priest shortage.

Father Petter leads St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, an affluent parish of 18,600 members in Plano. The parish draws overflow crowds to nine weekend Masses. More than 2,300 children participate in religious education programs, and nearly 1,800 volunteers help with the church's 75 ministries.

But the parish has only two full-time and one part-time priest, a ratio of one priest for every 7,600 members. That's nearly five times higher than the national average.

"It must be daunting for him," said 51-year-old parishioner Lou Soileau.

Father Petter works six days a week. He may start a day leading Mass at 7 a.m., followed by hours of appointments.

In the evening, he may teach a class, attend a meeting or lead a funeral. Hospitals call him several times a week in the middle of the night.

For this, he receives a $20,000 annual salary, plus benefits such as food and lodging. Protestant clergy at comparable-size churches can draw six-figure salaries.

One recent Sunday, after a hectic nine hours of leading Masses, performing baptisms, anointing the sick and greeting people at services, Father Petter was paged just as he sat down to eat.

"Is there a cat heaven?" a distraught woman tearfully asked him over the phone. She was relieved when the priest said it was permissible to put her dying cat to sleep.

"Take comfort," he said. "You have given your cat a good life."

Changing priesthood

One drizzly Thursday, as he hustled to a morning Mass, Father Petter said that being busy was the nature of a priest's work. "It's just a different kind of busy than in the past."

The little chapel smelled of candles, which flickered near the altar. Fifty people sat in silence, praying fervently, some with rosaries.

When Father Petter was ordained 25 years ago, he could identify everyone in such an intimate setting by name. Now parishes are too large for that.

One of the frustrations of priesthood today, he said, is the limitation for one-on-one ministry. Most of his time is devoted to administrative matters and sacramental duties - Masses, weddings, baptisms, funerals and anointings.

Priests have always done these things, he said, but with as the number of Catholics has grown, demands have soared. The Diocese of Dallas has seven fewer priests than in 1987, but triple the number of Catholics - 630,000.

"You may have already worked a 15-hour day, but the next person who comes to you doesn't know that and, frankly, doesn't care and probably they shouldn't," said Monsignor Milam Joseph, president of the University of Dallas and Father Petter's fishing buddy.

Today, when a couple needs marriage counseling, Father Petter may meet with them once to address spiritual concerns. But for long-term issues, he refers them to the parish's counselor.

"The thing I hear a lot from people is, 'Father, I wanted to come and talk with you, but I know that you're so busy,' " he said.

Ministry teams

With a $3.4 million annual budget, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is fortunate. It can afford a staff of 33 lay professionals to help carry out the church's ministry.

The staff includes a business administrator, a worship director and a small army of children's ministers. With fewer priests, parishes are turning to lay ministers to help fill the gaps.

Lay ministers usually are trained in theology but not ordained. Fewer than half U.S. parishes had them a decade ago. Today, 65 percent have them.

"Catholics are waking up to the fact that it's just old-fashioned to think that priests can do everything," said Mary Gautier, a research with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

Lay staff salaries at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton range between $25,000 and $65,000. Father Petter said he doesn't mind that his salary is lower. But some experts suggest the pay disparity adds to the difficulty of recruiting priests.