As a seminarian, the Rev. George J. Stephan taught religion at St. John the Baptist Parish in Black Rock, which had two priests on staff and a third in residence.
St. Francis Xavier, a half-mile away, also had three priests.
"Little did I think that I would come back as pastor of both parishes," said Stephan, who became pastor of St. John's in 1989 and of St. Francis in 1995.
A priest for 38 years, Stephan works alone at the two parishes today because of a shortage of priests. It's a problem that plagues the Catholic Church here and around the globe, forcing dramatic changes in how parishes function.
In the span of a decade, the problem locally has become severe. Since 1990, the number of active priests serving the diocese -- as parish priests as well as diocesan administrators -- has dropped from 437 to 285. Yet only 31 men were ordained to take the places of the 243 who retired, resigned or died.
As a result, parishes without pastors are becoming more common, Mass schedules are being trimmed, and more lay people are taking on responsibility for running parishes. Church leaders concede that someday soon they may have to face one unpopular option they have been trying to avoid: closing more churches.
"We are very definitely concerned. I pray for vocations every day -- several times a day," said Bishop Henry J. Mansell, the leader of Western New York's 731,000 Catholics. "The recruiting and training of men for the priesthood is a high priority."
The clergy shortage is by no means confined to the Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in Western New York. The Presbyterian Church (USA) and Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod have found it difficult to fill pastor vacancies locally. Nationally, the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America face shortages, as does Reform Judaism. Most denominations are hardest pressed to find clergy to staff small rural churches that can afford only a part-time minister.
The consequences of the priest shortage here are clear. Like Stephan, more and more priests in the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo find themselves assigned as pastors of two churches that share a priest. Currently, 38 priests have two parishes, and three priests serve three parishes each.
Other priests are working alone in huge parishes that traditionally have had a minimum of two priests. Some of those parishes -- St. Andrew's in the Town of Tonawanda and St. John the Baptist in Kenmore, to name two -- have 3,000 or more families. Parishioners who were accustomed to having their pick of as many as seven Masses on weekends now have fewer options.
The diocese is "at a crossroads time," said the Rev. Paul W. Steller, coordinator of the diocesan Priests Personnel Board, which is responsible for finding priests to staff 266 parishes and 10 mission churches -- rural churches used only on weekends -- in Western New York.
"We are going to look for more pastoral leaders who are not priests," he said. "Priests are going to be more and more involved in sacramental things -- celebrating Masses and hearing confessions."
How serious is the situation in the Buffalo diocese? Consider this:
During the next 10 years, 106 priests will reach the mandatory retirement age of 75. If some opt to retire at 70, as permitted by diocesan rules, it will accelerate the decline in the clerical ranks.
As many as 19 men may be ordained during the next five years. That's the number currently preparing to be priests in the Buffalo diocese at Christ the King Seminary, East Aurora. But no one will be ordained a priest this year, and only two ordinations are possible next year. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that all of the seminarians will make it to ordination.
There are 106 priests between ages 66 and 75 and 105 priests between 56 and 65. Another 88 priests are between 46 and 55, and 41 priests are between 36 and 45. Only 11 priests are 35 or younger.
Indications are that the situation will continue to worsen into the foreseeable future. Sister Regina Murphy, diocesan director of research and planning, projects that by 2010 there will be only 193 active diocesan priests, including those to be ordained over the next 10 years.
Critics of the church's men-only clergy policy say the shortage is unnecessary.
"There is no shortage of people who experience a call to serve if we would just take the step of opening ordination to all of the baptized -- that means ordaining women and married men," said Sister Christine Schenk, a nun who serves as director of the Cleveland-based Future Church.
Coping with shortage
Catholic Church officials in the Buffalo diocese are scrambling to staff parishes, in some instances installing lay people in diocesan positions formerly held by priests to free the priests for parish duty. Some churches are cutting back on the number of Masses to ease the burden on pastors.
At St. Amelia's, a Town of Tonawanda parish of 3,400 families, layman John E. Ludwig, who has 30 years of experience in private-sector financial administration, signed on last fall as business manager.
His responsibilities, duties previously handled by the pastor, include purchasing, bill paying, hiring and firing support staff, communications, building maintenance and serving as a liaison between the priest and parish volunteers.
"It frees the pastor to focus on the content and meaning of the Gospel, prepare for preaching and administer the sacraments," said Ludwig. "The priest is Christ's representative. He needs to concentrate on religious ministry."
One priest, the Rev. Albert Hansen, a former Army chaplain, came out of retirement in Florida on Nov. 1 to become full-time pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, City of Tonawanda.
"The bishop called me and asked me to come back to Buffalo to take a parish," said Hansen, who had retired in 1999 as pastor of St. George's in West Falls. "A priest's calling is to serve God's people. If we are called to walk that extra mile, we do it."
Steller said the diocese already relies heavily on the assistance of 124 retired priests who regularly help out by celebrating Masses in parishes.
"We would not be able to do Sunday or weekday work without their help," he said.
Western New York also is fortunate to have a large contingent of religious-order priests, such as Jesuits, Franciscans and Vincentians, who serve 24 parishes and four mission churches.
The religious-order priests came to work as missionaries during the early days of the diocese and eventually founded major institutions such as Niagara and St. Bonaventure universities and Canisius College.
Reluctant to close parishes
The diocese began actively dealing with the priest shortage in the early 1990s under retired Bishop Edward D. Head. He closed and merged several parishes, mostly in the City of Buffalo.
Mansell, who became bishop of Buffalo in 1995, has been reluctant to close any more parishes. Observers say he feels that closings, especially when they leave boarded-up buildings, may be seen as failure on the part of the Catholic Church.
In fact, one of his first acts as bishop was to halt the carefully negotiated merger of five relatively small parishes into one large one in Niagara Falls.
Closing parishes, the bishop said, sometimes causes "a fracturing of a faith community" and "creates a blight" in a neighborhood unless there is an alternative use for abandoned church buildings.
Mansell gave the first hint that his position may be changing when he was asked during a recent interview if the acute personnel shortage may force the closing of more churches.
"We will look at situations as they develop," he replied.
Lay people become leaders
Aside from promoting the priesthood as a vocation, Mansell is encouraging development of leadership at the diocesan level and in parishes by lay people who are formally trained for the work.
Schenk, of Future Church, sees the growing involvement by lay people as a sign that the priesthood must and will change eventually.
There are 29,000 lay pastoral ministers working in parishes nationwide and another 30,000 individuals studying to become lay ministers -- and 82 percent of them are women, said Schenk. Her organization, consisting of active Catholics, fears the loss of Masses and access to the sacraments because of the priest shortage.
Nationally, there also are 13,000 permanent male deacons, most of whom are married, and about 18,000 priests who left active ministry to marry. It is assumed that many of them would be willing to join the clerical ranks, Schenk suggested.
Mansell has asked the vicars -- priests who oversee the 16 groups of parishes into which the diocese is divided -- to encourage parishes to work together to deal with the personnel shortage.
"One way the priest can be more imaginative is to create a large ministry team that he can coordinate," said the Rev. Paul R. Bossi, who coordinates the Vicariate of Northwest Buffalo.
The teams, already functioning in some of the larger parishes, generally consist of a business manager, pastoral associate, deacon, youth minister, religious education coordinator, music director and outreach staff. Hiring a professional business manager is a relatively new practice in the Buffalo diocese, but at least 20 parishes now have one.
"There is always a cost factor," added Bossi, who serves as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish. "You have to pay lay people more than you pay a priest."
Pastors also are being encouraged to share professional staff members, reduce the number of weekend Masses and coordinate Mass schedules with those of neighboring parishes.
St. Andrew's Parish, Town of Tonawanda, has gone from seven to five weekend Masses because the Rev. Charles E. Slisz, pastor of the 3,000-family parish, recently lost his parochial vicar (assistant pastor). The loss of the parochial vicar at St. John the Baptist Parish, Kenmore, which has 3,200 families, forced the pastor, the Rev. Richard Reina, to go from six to five Masses on the weekend.
In the Buffalo diocese, every priest has been authorized by Mansell to celebrate two Masses on weekdays and three on Sundays and holy days of obligation. In large parishes that offer more than three Masses on Sundays, pastors without parochial vicars have been able to find retired priests, chaplains, seminary instructors and others to assist.
In Black Rock, Stephan recently went to a bare-bones weekend Mass schedule. He celebrates a 4 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. Francis Xavier, which has about 200 families, and an 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday at St. John the Baptist, which has about 250 families.
"We could cut down to one Mass and still have room left over," said Stephan, explaining that about 60 percent of his families "are just one person."
Twinning as an idea
Stephan foresees the day when some of the churches in northwest Buffalo may have to close.
"There are six churches in the Black Rock-Riverside neighborhood, and I don't think any of them are filled," he said.
In all, there are 56 Catholic parishes in Buffalo.
Like Stephan, the Rev. Joseph S. Rogliano, who serves as pastor of St. Joseph's and St. Anthony's parishes, Lockport, adjusted the Mass schedules at the two churches as of Jan. 1. Each church formerly had three weekend Masses. St. Anthony's now has two, and the times have changed at both churches.
"People have been very accepting. I see twinning as a workable thing," said Rogliano. "It's a little harder on us priests, but we are doing the best we can with what we've got."
Not everyone is as eager as Rogliano to embrace an assignment as pastor of two parishes.
"The guys in the trenches are all scared to death about the kinds of demands that are going to be put on them," said one priest who asked not to be identified. "We feel right now there is no plan to deal with this crisis that is looming. I don't think the people in the pews realize what we are up against."
Targets for closing
When the time comes to consider closing more churches, parishes like St. Gerard's, near the Buffalo-Cheektowaga line, will most likely be the first targets. St. Gerard's has only 150 families.
Its pastor, the Rev. Francis X. Mazur, acknowledged that his parish and nearby St. James, with 500 families, and St. Lawrence, also with about 500 families, eventually may be served by one priest. Each now has its own pastor. But none of them should close, he insisted.
"I think it is our responsibility to keep a presence in city neighborhoods," said Mazur. "We are the only stable institution -- a beacon of hope for this neighborhood. We are here to stay."
Monsignor Frederick D. Leising, pastor of St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, Lancaster, said he would begin dealing with the shortage by redistributing priests to parishes where the needs are greatest and eliminating some weekday Masses, giving pastors more time and energy to prepare for weekend liturgies. Weekday Masses could be replaced, as they are now in some parishes, by prayer-Scripture-Communion services led by lay people or deacons.
Leising, former rector of Christ the King Seminary, suggested redesigning the priesthood to make it more appealing and challenging to prospective priests and giving priests a stronger voice in diocesan decision-making.
He also wants priests to focus more on Scripture and prayer.
"That is what people are coming to us for. They are not coming to us to ask about problems with boilers or how to clean floors," he said.
Mansell is more optimistic about attracting new priests than Brooklyn Bishop Thomas V. Daily, who said recently that the priest shortage in his diocese has reached "crisis" stage.
"I think the vocations are out there," said Mansell. "I think when Bishop Daily made the remark about the shortage, it called attention to the problem and to the need for people to encourage men to consider the priesthood."