Non-ordained Catholics filling void left by priest shortage

Led by laity
The Dallas Morning News, Feb. 22, 2003
By SUSAN HOGAN/ALBACH / The Dallas Morning News

KOSCIUSKO, Miss. – In the wooded middle of the state is this small town named for a Polish patriot in the American Revolution. Today, it’s known best for its revolutionary women.

First, there’s Oprah Winfrey, who was born in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Kosciusko, population 7,372. Then there’s Barbara Sturbaum, a spiritual trailblazer who mirrors Oprah’s forthright manner, albeit without her name recognition. This wisplike woman with the white bowl-cut hair quietly treads where few Catholic laywomen are allowed by church hierarchy. She leads two parishes without resident priests.

The clergy sexual abuse crisis that erupted last year ignited lay Catholics across the country to lobby for a greater voice in church affairs. They want more accountability, less secrecy and better collaboration among bishops, priests and laypeople.

Some call it a new model of church, but it’s old hat in Kosciusko (pronounced kahs-ee-US-ko). When the last resident priest retired in 1987, Catholics took to heart what he told them – that they were the church – and carried on under lay leadership.

Likewise, Catholics here were puzzled by last month’s headlines about the Baltimore Archdiocese naming its first laywoman as parish administrator. What’s new there is routine in the Jackson Diocese, which was among the first in the country to tap lay ministers to fill the void left by priest shortages.

Still, among American Catholics, Dr. Sturbaum’s ministry remains rare. Only 107 laypeople in 36 dioceses lead parishes. (Other priestless parishes are led by brothers or sisters from religious orders, or by deacons.)

Sometimes, Dr. Sturbaum said, the biggest hurdle to lay ministry is laypeople.

“People will say they want lay involvement, but I don’t know if they really do because it’s still ‘Father, Father, Father,’ ” said the 66-year-old Cleveland native.

In area, Jackson is the largest diocese east of the Mississippi River, covering 65 of the state’s 82 counties. Twenty parishes spread across at least two counties. Seven counties are without a church building, and 28 without a resident priest.

The shortage of priests here mirrors what’s happened nationally. In 1965, there were 549 U.S. parishes without a resident pastor. By last year, the number had soared to 2,928. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. Catholics grew to more than 62 million.

“Here, to be Catholic, you have to make an effort,” said Monsignor Michael Flannery, the diocese’s chancellor. “We tell parishes to look at their own resources and draw strength They can carry on after the priests leave.”

When Dr. Sturbaum arrived in 1993, St. Therese Catholic Church in Kosciusko and Sacred Heart, 35 miles east in Louisville, were thriving under the leadership of two nuns. When the sisters left to pursue other ministries, the churches matter-of-factly accepted word from the bishop that their next pastoral leader would be a layperson and a woman.

What was tougher for some to swallow was that she was a Yankee.

“You do what you’ve got to do to keep your church,” said Jennifer Swinney, 40, who moved to the area from Miami seven years ago. “No, I don’t like it that we don’t have a priest. Yes, it took time to get used to seeing Barbara in those roles. But she is truly wonderful.”

Parish ministryDr. Sturbaum visits the sick, teaches the faith and prepares couples for marriage. She provides counseling and spiritual guidance. She advises each congregation’s parish council and oversees the parishes’ finances.

But she can’t lead Mass, marry couples, baptize, hear confessions or anoint the sick – sacraments central to Catholic life – because she isn’t a priest.

So she depends on priests more than 35 miles away, who come once a week to preside at Mass. The diocese calls the priests sacramental ministers, not pastors, since they have no role in the day-to-day affairs of the parishes.

When the priests can’t come, Dr. Sturbaum leads prayer services and distributes Holy Communion previously consecrated by a priest. On occasion, she leads funerals.

“There are some who don’t come when the priest’s not there to say Mass,” said Jimmey Daly, 85, a pillar of the Louisville church. “But she gives out Communion and explains the Scriptures real well, so it suits me just fine.”

One of the priests, the Rev. Kenan Ryan, said he tells parishioners that they don’t need him to legitimize their worship.

“They legitimize it themselves by coming together as a community,” he said. “They may not be able to celebrate Eucharist in the way they’d like, but they can still be a Eucharistic community.”

Dr. Sturbaum doesn’t just perform duties usually assigned to a priest. She also types the bulletins – 36 for Louisville, 55 for Kosciusko – and sweeps the bugs.

Her official title is resident pastoral minister. When parishioners at first addressed her as “Sister,” she insisted they call her by her first name. She’s single, but not a nun.

“She’s so dedicated and holy, I still think of her as a nun,” Mrs. Swinney said.

The diocese’s 51,347 Catholics make up only 2.3 percent of the state’s population. There are 14 times as many Baptists.

The distances between parishes add to the difficulty of serving Catholics in the Jackson diocese. One priest serves four congregations; others serve two or three. Only one new priest is being ordained this year; two are retiring.

“I was never one to push for women priests,” Dr. Sturbaum said. “If women knew the role of a priest in some of these small areas, they might not want it. They’d be isolated and lonely. They’d lack a support system. They’d have a lot of hard work to do.”

And almost never a day off.

John Mitchell, a lifelong member of the Louisville parish, said churches shouldn’t fear lay leadership.

“It can be a spiritual awakening for the parish,” he said. “We grew up believing the priests and nuns were the holy ones and did the ministry of the church.”

For his parish to survive, laypeople had to step into those roles.

Although strapped for priests, the diocese has five towns where different priests serve separate white and black congregations. Officials say it would be a more efficient use of those priests to integrate the parishes, as the National Black Catholic Congress recommends.

“We’re ready for it, but the people aren’t,” Monsignor Flannery said. “If you go to the black community and say we’re going to integrate these churches, they’re going to object. They’re going to say we’re taking away their identity.”

Dr. Sturbaum’s parishes attract blacks, whites and Hispanics.

“Our church doesn’t have all the frills that other major Catholic churches have, but we can beat anybody when it comes to spirit, faith and openness,” said Greg Fulton, 35, whose son is the only altar server in Louisville.

Surge in lay ministryThe Catholic lay ministry revolution didn’t begin with last year’s sexual abuse crisis. The seeds were sown at the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

The council said the church is the entire people of God, a novel idea for hierarchically minded Catholics. It also said laypeople are called to share in the ministry of Jesus by their baptisms.

Lay ministry was virtually unknown at the time. Today, at least 63 percent of U.S. parishes employ lay ministers as religious educators, youth ministers, liturgical ministers, pastoral care workers, and in other roles.

An estimated 35,000 lay ministers now serve on parish staffs in at least a part-time capacity.

“This is an emerging model of leadership,” said Kelly O’Lague Dulka of the National Association for Lay Ministry.

But it’s a model wrought with confusion that U.S. bishops are wrestling to rectify. Across the 195 dioceses, there are no generally agreed upon standards, qualifications, training, compensation, job descriptions or even job titles for lay ministers, as there are for priests and deacons.

“The church is struggling with lay pastoral ministry in general,” said Monsignor Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. “Is this a permanent new ministry or a short-term fix for the priest shortages? Is this a new vocation or a job? Should lay ministry be recognized as a calling of the Holy Spirit, just as that of a priest, deacon or nun?”

Dr. Sturbaum felt called to full-time ministry late in life, after decades as a parish volunteer and university professor. She arrived in Mississippi with a doctorate in zoology and a certificate in spiritual direction, then earned a master’s in theological studies.

Two-thirds of U.S. dioceses, including Dallas, now have programs enabling laypeople to earn certificates in ministry or advanced degrees in theology. Many Catholic graduate schools of theology and seminaries report that half their students are laypeople.

“Lay ministry is clearly a vocation and it’s here to stay,” said Terry Stadler, of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. This academic year his school enrolled 160 men studying for the priesthood and 190 laypeople seeking graduate degrees in theology.

Eight in 10 of the country’s lay ministers are women. The pay is low and benefits are few, except in the wealthiest parishes. Many say they couldn’t afford to do the work if not for spouses’ incomes.

Dr. Sturbaum draws a nun’s salary, between $15,000 and $20,000.

“The benefit is that it lets people see women in a different role,” said Genevieve Chavez of the Women’s Ordination Conference. “The dilemma this gives us is that women end up doing all of the work with none of the honor, respect, title, social status or compensation.”

Dr. Sturbaum said you don’t count the cost when you follow God’s call.

One recent afternoon, she stopped by a nursing home and found an agitated parishioner.

“I have two daughters and did everything in the world for them and now they don’t do anything for me,” said the woman, who shook her fist at a wall decoration that read: Mother is another name for love.

Dr. Sturbaum listened, then offered Holy Communion.

“This is Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world,” she said.

Tears streaked down the woman’s cheeks.

“Are you OK?” Dr. Sturbaum gently asked.

“I always cry when you bring Jesus.”

Back in her small Louisville church, eight people turned out for a prayer service. In a firm voice, Dr. Sturbaum beckoned the Almighty.

“For vocations to the priesthood and religious life, we pray to the Lord.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday February 25, 2003.
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