2016-06-30
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.

"Fifty years ago, if you wanted to work for the church, you had to be a nun or a priest," said Joseph Claude Harris, a Catholic analyst based in Seattle. "Today, there are many more avenues for entering ministry. They usually offer better financial rewards and don't require celibacy."

Father Petter insists that his lay staff is invaluable and deserves to make a just wage. Unlike him, they have homes to buy, families to feed and children to educate.


He shares a spacious brick home within walking distance of the church with two other priests. His only private space is a small, boxy bedroom with an adjoining sitting room. Photos of nature and friends line nearly every inch of wall space.

"If any one of us priests did what we do for the money, we would not last," he said. "This is not a job, it is a vocation. We have to be in it for something much deeper than material gain."

He's in it because faith drives him. He said tries to enter into people's deepest sorrows and greatest joys with the heart of Jesus.

Recently, that meant helping a family plan the funeral of an elderly relative who had died. "Tell me about Irene," the priest asked the family as they sat around a table.

The room bustled with laughter as memories were shared. "She once drove me to Oklahoma just because I'd said I'd never been there," a granddaughter said.

"My gosh, why didn't you tell her you'd never been to Hawaii?" Father Petter asked.

The battle

To combat the clergy shortage, the Dallas Diocese appointed a full- time vocations director two years ago. There are dinners and retreats to recruit priests, and many parishes have groups exclusively devoted to praying for the cause.

Other dioceses are taking more visible steps, such as posting billboards along highways. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is airing commercials during segments of Saturday Night Live and The Rosie O'Donnell Show.

But is that enough?

"What the church desperately needs is visionary leadership," said Father Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and author from Chicago. "We need bishops who can stir up some excitement about the church and its work."

Bishop Charles Grahmann, who leads the Dallas Diocese, said that priests, parents and parishes also must do a better job of encouraging men to be priests. Last school year, the diocese had one man enter the seminary; this year it had seven.

Father Petter decided to become a priest at age 13, in the days when boys were sent to high school seminaries before the onslaught of puberty. Back then, having a son become a priest was a crowning achievement for parents.

Today, two-thirds of Catholic parents say they don't encourage their sons to become priests, according to a study by Georgetown's CARA. Among the reasons: job stress, celibacy and financial hardships.

"Some of the priesthood is drudgery to the priests," said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America. "Their greatest satisfaction is in leading worship, preaching, teaching and serving people.

"What they don't enjoy is administration, personnel issues and raising money."

In Dallas, the need for bigger churches, more schools and larger staffs means that many a priest's life will revolve around the things studies show priests least like to do.

"I didn't become a priest to be a personnel manager," Father Greeley said. "If somebody had said you'd spend a lot of time doing that, then I might have had second thoughts."

Catholic researchers agree that the sex scandals of the 1980s and '90s also have taken a toll on recruiting priests, but they disagree over the extent. "Let's just say that it's not something you put on a recruiting brochure," said Mr. Harris, who has written about the shrinking priesthood.

In 1997, a Dallas jury awarded $119 million to abuse victims of former priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos, who's in prison. The jury said that the diocese failed to protect the victims and covered up evidence of suspicious behavior. The diocese and its insurers later reached a $30.9 million settlement.

Father Michael Forge, the diocese's vocation director, said another major obstacle to recruiting priests is the lifetime commitment required by the church.

"That's scary to them," he said. "If we had a system like the military where they could be a priest for 10 years or so, they'd sign up."

It would certainly make celibacy less daunting, he added.

Some men choose to be deacons instead of priests. Deacons are clergy who can be married. They perform some sacramental ministries, but their work is largely voluntary.

The church doesn't ordain women, and it requires priests to be celibate, though exceptions are made for married Episcopal clergy who convert. Father Petter said he would welcome women and married clergy if the Vatican lifted its bans.

That isn't likely to happen with the current pope, experts said. Most bishops and cardinals don't contest the restrictions.

"If Jesus had wanted women priests, he would have chosen them to be apostles," Bishop Grahmann said.

Seeds of faith

Long days of hard work are all that Henry Petter has ever known. He grew up in farm country in West and Abbott, Texas, the sixth oldest of nine children born to Jerry and Jannie Petter.

The Petters never had the money to buy a farm outright, but they lived comfortably from year to year on their earnings. The children went to public school by day and tended to the cotton, corn and cows by night.

The Petter household stood out, if not for its size, then for its love of its Czech heritage. At home, they ate sweet pastries known as kolaches. In town, the children joined their father, an accordionist, in playing polkas at weddings and church events.

Father Petter carries on those traditions in his ministry, serving kolaches at staff meetings, leading Masses for the Czech Club with a polka choir and even playing "Silent Night" on his harmonica at 11 Christmas Masses.


Father Petter entered seminary at the end of the heyday for priests. Seminaries were still full, and priests enjoyed a high status in society; they often were among the most educated men in town. Bing Crosby emulated that role in several popular movies such as The Bells of St. Mary's.

Mr. Hoge said a priest's role isn't so clear-cut any more. The world is more complicated, churches are bigger and Catholics demand more programs. They're also less likely to fall in step with church doctrine and less willing to tolerate a priest who demands that of them.

"In the old days, many Catholics thought their priest was the same as God," Mr. Hoge said. "You'll still see that with immigrants. But Anglos are more educated and questioning. We drill it into college students to think for themselves."

Father Petter had doubts about his calling just as he was completing a college degree in philosophy - well before he was ordained.

It was a turbulent time in the world. The Vietnam War was raging, and Catholics were wrestling with the impact of the Second Vatican Council. Many priests left the ministry during this time to marry.

If he hadn't been a priest, maybe he would be a teacher and raise a large family. He went on his first date at age 20.

When he mustered the courage to propose to Judy, he was direct. "Will you marry me?" he asked. She never said no. She just never said yes.

Ministry marathon

The administrative offices of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton are in a brick house beside the church. Inside the doorway, there's a photograph of Father Petter running in a marathon wearing flashy red- and-white striped shorts.

Running a church these days is like running a marathon, he said. Both take a lot of discipline and require listening to the body. In the church's case, he means the Body of Christ.

"If you think you're overdoing it, you slow down," he said. "If you feel like you can do more, you push ahead harder and faster."

Father Petter came to the parish three and a half years ago charged with expanding its campus and starting a spinoff parish in Plano. Though only 25 years old, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had long outgrown its facility.

Even though he's busy, Father Petter said he's happy. His colleagues say compassion is his greatest strength. They tell the story of an elderly priest that Father Petter provided housing and care to for 18 years.

The last two years of his life, the priest needed round-the-clock care. A nurse helped him during the day, but Father Petter cared for him at night, tucking him into bed and even changing his diapers.

Monsignor Glenn (Duffy) Gardner, the diocese's vicar general, said Father Petter modeled the unselfish love of Jesus in his care.

"He did something most people would never do, unless it was a relative," he said. "Even then, most of us would put our relatives in a home."

Most parishioners never witness a priest's private life. They're more likely to encounter him at worship.

On weekends, Father Petter stands at the church's doors greeting people at all nine services, even those he isn't leading. On Sunday, the first Mass starts at 7 a.m., and the last one at 7:30 p.m.

"If he didn't do that, you could conceivably be in the parish and never ever talk to your priest," said Annette Gopalan, 45, of Plano.

Most of the people coming out of church rush past him. Some glance in his direction and mumble, "Morning, Father." A few stop and talk, extending a hand to shake.

"Sometimes a short one-on-one is better than nothing at all," Father Petter said.

But some people want their babies blessed. A man suffering from diabetes asked to be anointed. A woman who'd just lost her job wanted the priest to pray with her.

Inside the church's gym, Andrew Byers was setting up chairs for the 10:15 a.m. Mass. The 18-year-old said he'd only briefly entertained thoughts about being a priest.

What turned him off?

"They have to work too hard," he said. "Too many hours."

Father Petter winced when he heard that. "If more of them would be ordained, we'd have less work," he said.

The priest was standing just outside the church doors when a woman rushed out of a Mass carrying her wailing 2-year-old. "He's a little too active today," she said to Father Petter.

"Too active?" he shouted after her. "Sounds like a good candidate for priesthood."
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