LIMA — The Roman Catholic Church has a problem.
By 2019, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate Study, half of the active priests in the United States will retire, and there are not nearly enough priests being ordained to replace them.
In the Catholic Diocese of Toledo, to which Lima’s St. Rose and St. John, St. Gerard and St. Charles Borromeo parishes all belong, there has been a noticeable decrease over the last several decades. In 1976 there were 445 priests in the diocese, according to the Official Catholic Directory. That number has shrunk to only 229 in 2013. Parishes without a resident priest rose from only five in 1976 to 40 in 2013. This dramatically increases the workload of each individual priest, making it much harder for him to meet the needs of his parishioners.
When the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests met for their 2014 National Assembly in St. Louis, Mo., from June 23 to 26, they addressed this growing problem. Besides enjoying a time of prayer, spending time together and listening to speakers, the association’s board also votes on several proposals brought before them by their members during the annual National Assembly. One of those proposals was ordaining married men.
“We want to be a membership organization,” explained the Rev. Frank Eckart, who spent 40 years in the ministry before retiring a few years ago. “Any member can make a proposal. These proposals are accepted by the Issues Committee and then put forth to the membership. Then it is by consensus whether they should be accepted. If accepted, then they become resolutions.”
Eckart explained that these resolutions are then passed on to the bishops. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Please make the request to the pope to ordain married men,’” he said. “The bishops can vote to make the request and then get permission from Rome to do that. This is in response to Pope Francis indicating that the ordination of married men would be considered if the bishops’ would make the request. ”
The Association of U.S. Catholic Priests formed in August 2011 when 27 priests met in Chicago and has grown in membership to around 1,000. The Toledo Diocese, which includes parishes in the Lima area, has 33 members in the association, 13 of which attended the National Assembly.
One of the local members of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests is the Rev. Steve Blum, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church and St. Patrick Catholic Church in Spencerville.
“This is really the first time I’ve heard of this resolution,” said Blum, who was unable to attend the 2014 National Assembly because of his parish duties.
Despite not hearing about the resolution yet, when asked, Blum said he is definitely for the idea of ordaining married men. “We need more personnel,” he said. “Wherever we can get them, we should do so.”
Eckart echoed this sentiment.
“I do think not being able to marry is an impediment,” he explained. “I talk to young men, and they want to marry and have a family.”
The Rev. Bob Bonnot, who is the head pastor of Christ Our Savior Parish in Struthers, Ohio, was recently elected chairman of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests board and is also finishing up his term as its director of communications. He said there were two reasons for ordaining married men.
“The first reason is making the Eucharist and sacraments available to all people,” Bonnot said. “There are fewer priests now, and that makes them less available to people. The second reason is because there are fewer priests, they are being more and more stretched to provide service.”
Blum said he saw the trend of priests being asked to serve combined or multiple parishes as long 25 years ago. “I have friends out West,” he said. “It started in the West and has moved to the Midwest and the problem is steadily moving across the country.”
According to Eckart, the parishioners are also open to ordaining married men. “If you do a Google survey,” he said, “over 50 percent of Catholics would be accepting of married clergy.”
Blum said that most likely one of the first places the Roman Catholic Church will look for married priests is within their own churches.
“Ordaining permanent deacons would make sense,” he said. The men in these roles have decided to make a commitment of ministry, stopping short of becoming a priest. They are allowed to be married.
“They are already in ministry and committed, so then extending them to being a priest would make sense. We’ve got hundreds of them in the diocese,” Blum said.
If Pope Francis would approve ordaining married men, Blum feels this would better allow priests to meet parishioners’ needs.
“There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” he said, “to be present for all the people who need us.”