The Diocese has expanded efforts to recruit new seminarians willing to serve as priests. But the rapid decline is forcing big changes in the way Catholic churches operate.
Brian Mann spoke recently with Bishop Terry LaValley and has this update.
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The priest shortage is nothing new. Here in the North Country and around the US, bishops have been grappling for decades with a steady decline in new seminarians and the rapid aging of the community of priests and nuns.
Bishop Terry LaValley says it’s still not clear when the Diocese of Ogdensburg will stabilize.
"That's very difficult to say. There are so many variables. Age of retirements, the deaths, the seminarians. So there are so many variables, it's very difficult."
The numbers are daunting. A decade ago, there were 92 priests serving a 12,000 square mile area. That’s already dropped to 62. And over the next decade, it’s expected to plummet again to around 40.
Bishop LaValley says the Catholic community has been working for more than a decade to manage that shift as best as possible.
"We continue to have a diocesan planning committee composed of some lay people, as well as senior priests from all over the North Country. Since I became bishop, I appointed a full-time priest as vocation directior. It's that important. We've seen an increase in vocations, so it's hopeful. But we need many, many more."
Currently, the diocese has 102 parishes, 7 missions, 24 oratories, 13 elementary schools, two high schools and a nursing home.
Diocesan officials say it’s certain that more parishes will operate without resident pastors, more parishes will likely be downscaled into oratories or closed altogether.
But Bishop LaValley says the Church is also moving to include lay-members of the church in far more functions and leadership roles.
"Call it crisis management or what have you, we're really seeking to make that a reality. And frankly the faithful haven't been used to it. And so it takes some convincing of the laity and some encouragement. And thankfully they're stepping aforward. And it takes some reeducation of our priests, who are not used to having the lay-faithful in so many leadership positions in the local parish."
About a fifth of the North Country’s population is Roman Catholic. What’s clear is that they live in a time when the experience of church life is changing in ways that no one quite yet understands.