How the Youngstown Diocese is addressing Catholic priesthood decline

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Catholic Church membership and the Church’s priesthood are shrinking worldwide but especially in the Diocese of Youngstown’s six counties –Ashtabula, Mahoning, Stark, Columbiana, Portage, and Trumbull.

It’s a trend that could eliminate services, possibly close some churches, and put a lot more work on the current priests’ shoulders.

WKBN 27 First News asked local priests and church administration if there’s anything that can be done to bring the Church back to where it used to be. They also discussed some of the scandals and controversy surrounding the Church and whether they play a role in the decline of priests.Priest Shortage

Over the last five years, the number of priests in the Youngstown Diocese has shrunk from 117 to 92.

Thirty-eight of the current priests are over the age of 60, pushing the retirement age of 75. Even more, 17 of the 38 are 70 years old or older.

With fewer priests available, the diocese has begun merging some of its 87 parishes.

Father Shawn Conoboy has been a priest for Christ the Good Shepard Catholic Church in Campbell for ten years. In 2012, his parish merged with four other churches in the city.

“In the parish, that means being creative in terms of how to exercise various ministries,” he said.

They’ve started asking parish members to do some of the non-sacramental priest duties.

“The number of seminarians that we’ve had and the number of priests that have been ordained for a long time have been lower than we’ve liked,” said Pete Shaffer, the lay administrator for the diocese.

Shaffer finds the solutions and fills spots when priests leave.

“We’re at the point where we really need to look a lot closer at how we use them and how we can remove some of the burdens on them so they can focus on their sacramental ministry,” he said.

A year and a half ago, Shaffer helped the diocese come out with a pastoral plan, which is now starting to take effect. It includes merging parishes or getting nearby churches to collaborate more.

“It’s not just a parish unto itself. Especially in our cities, we have a lot of parishes that are close together and it’d be natural for them to work together a little bit more,” he said.

As part of the plan, the diocese also started a parish leader program as a way to get the community more involved.

“We’re training deacons, religious men and women, and lay men and women to go into parishes that don’t have a resident pastor to run the day-to-day operations of the parish,” Shaffer said.

There are 17 men from the Valley at St. Mary’s Seminary in Cleveland that are planning on coming back to Youngstown. However, they can only come back one or two at a time.

One of those men is Brook Benedict. He said he questioned his calling at first.

“Do I want to completely surrender to God and give the rest of my life entirely and wholly to the church, to God’s people?”

Benedict said the world is getting more fast-paced and American culture is changing, making it harder to get young men to join the priesthood.

“Go to college, get a degree, get a good job,” he said of today’s society. “Teachers, parents, guidance counselors, we all want security for our kids. We want to see them be successful but that doesn’t always mean our kids will be happy.”

With fewer men joining the seminary, the shortage will only continue to grow.Will We Ever See Married Priests?

Priests in the Catholic Church didn’t always have to be celibate. The Church was over a thousand years old before celibacy became law in the twelfth century.

They changed it because there was a power struggle between the royal and noble families. By keeping priests celibate, the Church made sure its property wasn’t lost through marriage.

Some Catholic theologians believe we could see a change again and it might help solve the priest shortage.

“I don’t know if that’s something that would solve all of the problems that we have,” Shaffer said. “But it’s something I think Pope Francis seems to be open to at least talking about.”

Father Conoboy doesn’t think we’ll ever see the rule changed.

“There have been various statements from every pope including Pope Francis. Essentially, and every pope has said it somewhat differently, the practice of the Roman Catholic Church is a celibate priesthood.”

In a book called “On Heaven and Earth,” Pope Francis states:

If, hypothetically, Western Catholicism were to review the issue of celibacy, I think it would do so for cultural reasons (as in the East), not so much as a universal option.”

“There are important distinctions to note — it is a practice. There isn’t a theological demand that priests be unmarried,” Father Conoboy said.

Pope Francis also emphasized in his writing that if and until the celibacy practice is changed, the rule must be followed and any priest who cannot obey it should leave the ministry.

Benedict thinks if the Church is talking about it, it’s always a possibility but he also believes changing the practice might get in the way of priests’ ultimate duties to the Catholic Church.

“It’s a real gift for God’s people. We give up and we make that sacrifice of having a family of our own so that our lives can be holy and entirely available to God’s people,” he said.Thoughts About Recent Scandals

Sexual abuse cases and cover-ups during the 20th and 21st centuries have led to numerous investigations and convictions.

Probably one of the most prominent in the Valley was of the late Franciscan Brother Stephen Baker. Baker was accused of molesting 88 students between 1986 and 2001. He killed himself in 2013.

Just last year, a $900,000 settlement was reached between the Youngstown Catholic Diocese and the alleged victims of Baker’s sexual abuse.

When asked if he thought the scandals could have been reasoning for the decline, Shaffer said, “The stigma of the bad priests we’ve had in the past, I think the reality is that all organizations have had bad people, men and women, who have done horrible things.”

Father Conoboy also pointed out the Catholic Church isn’t the largest organization dealing with scandals like these. He said schools, unfortunately, have to handle similar cases all the time.

He said his friends who aren’t Catholic don’t look at him differently for being a priest and he doesn’t feel like members of ministry do either.

“Part of the reason the world has scandals is because they’re not expected. I think most people evaluate the situation on their own.”

Many are also wondering if the Catholic Church will ever allow women to be ordained.

Pope Francis has talked about the importance of women in the Catholic Church. He said they have a special role in spreading the faith to their children and grandchildren.

As far as women being ordained, he has ruled it out. He said it has been a longtime stance of the church and won’t change.Future of the Faith

Social hour in a Catholic church setting isn’t as appealing to young Americans as it once was.

The Pew Research Center recently surveyed 35,000 U.S. adults and found 23 percent are now religiously unaffiliated. That’s up from 16 percent in 2007 when it previously conducted the same survey.

A majority of the group this time around were millennials.

“For those who grew up with smartphones from a very young age, for instance, that is part of how they communicate and interact,” Father Conoboy said.

Shaffer said people aren’t connected to religious traditions now like they used to be.

Seminary student Brook Benedict said it was difficult to fight today’s culture and get to where he is now.

“Everything in this age of social media and all that, kids, aside from school, what they’re responsible for, extracurricular activities. Their lives are pretty hectic as it is.”

He thinks it’s harder for young men to make the choice to go to the seminary, saying millennials and younger generations have a difficult time committing to a specific culture or religion.

“I think it’s hard for young people to discern what will make them happy and where God wants them to be in life, so they have a lot of different voices coming at them from all angles.”

Father Conoboy said even though a lot of people aren’t religiously affiliated, he believes there’s an increase in those who have their own type of spiritual beliefs.

“Many of the same individuals will talk about praying daily or being guided by some sense of God’s presence. So it’s less of an issue of even faith but more so practice of the faith.”

The number of registered Catholics in Youngstown has dropped by 46,500 people in the last five years. It’s not just because of the declining general population here, either.

“I think other civic organizations out there are feeling the same pain,” Shaffer said. “People don’t gather for groups or meetings anymore for a lot of different things.”

Father Conoboy said the Catholic Church is becoming more open to technology and the digital world as an attempt to reach out to a larger crowd.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has worked to modernize the religion and grow membership. He has spoken to nonbelievers directly in speeches and has taken to social media to reach out, mainly to millennials.

“Now there needs to be a review in how those who do practice religion, how we present ourselves or how we invite others to be a part of our community,” Father Conoboy said.

The Diocese of Youngstown’s pastoral plan, which addresses its changing needs, largely focuses on opening church doors to more people.

“We’re making our churches more welcoming and warm to parishioners and visitors alike,” Shaffer said. “When they come in for Sunday Mass, it’s not just about receiving Eucharist. It’s that and the experience of the community.”

He said fixing all of the problems of the Church’s declining membership and priest population isn’t going to happen all at once.

“The bottom line is there’s not one pill, so to speak, that will solve all of the problems of the Church or the priests. It has to be a multi-faceted approach of vocations awareness, a Christian family, and really just building up the community in general.”

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