At St. Pius X Catholic Church, top official is a woman

On a typical day at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church in Rodgers Forge, you might find Carol Pacione counseling a young couple, haggling with a contractor, working on a capital campaign or arranging flowers in the nave.

As the senior official of a parish that doesn't have a full-time priest, Pacione, 63, fulfills many of the functions of a pastor.


In a church that doesn't ordain women, she's a pastoral life director — one of a small number of lay leaders who enjoy all the powers and responsibilities of a traditional parish priest, except for the ability to perform the sacraments.

It's a role that has helped the Catholic Church cope with a decades-long decline in priestly vocations in the United States while opening a path to leadership for women.


The number of priests in the United States has fallen from 58,632 in 1965 to 37,578 in 2015.

"Carol is part of a pioneering group of women who have assumed some of the highest leadership positions in the church and in Catholic churches," said Sean Caine, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Such an opportunity was made possible by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, when church leaders declared that it isn't just ordained priests who carry the gift of ministry, but all men and women baptized as Catholics.

Today, there are some 35,000 "lay ecclesial ministers" — many know them as pastoral associates — working full time in the Catholic Church in the United States.

"Without them, pastoral ministries would be crippled," says Thomas Groome, director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College. "This is the cutting edge of a deep shift in how the Catholic Church conducts its formal ministries, away from a purely clerical paradigm to a more inclusive and representative one."

The vast majority of these laypersons serve in support roles, helping parish leaders carry out work in areas such as finance, health care, music and building maintenance.

Pastoral life directors are the tiny subset who direct parishes. There are 431 at work in the United States, four of them in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Pacione, a graduate of Loyola University Maryland who has experience in youth ministry, religious education, family counseling and church development, is the only woman running a Catholic parish in Central Maryland.

"Years ago, we tended to look only to the ordained — to men — for these skills," says Kerry Robinson, executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. "We were probably overlooking hidden assets in our faith communities, the expertise and talents of the lay faithful. Now we look much more to laymen and women."

The pastoral life director position follows a revision to the Code of Canon Law — the rules that govern the day-to-day life of the church — approved by Pope John Paul II.

It was 1983. Church leaders were concerned about an aging clergy and sought to implement the ideas of the Second Vatican Council to bring the church into closer alignment with the modern world.

The revision, Canon 517-2, loosened strictures on who could lead parishes.


Should a "dearth of priests" occur, it read, a bishop could "entrust … the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish ... to a deacon or to some other person who is not a priest," so long as such leadership took place under the supervision of a priest.

This official — to be known as a pastoral life director, pastoral administrator or parish director, depending on the diocese — could be a man or a woman.

Robinson says Canon 517-2 has turned a potential crisis into an opportunity.

In part because parish life directors come from outside the traditional seminary pipeline, Robinson says, they bring a broad array of backgrounds and talents — in finance, business management, counseling, education and more — to church leadership.

The only tasks lay parish leaders may not carry out are the sacraments — performing baptisms, hearing confessions, celebrating the Eucharist, officiating at weddings and the other rituals that Catholics believe channel the grace of God to the faithful.

Ordained priests visit 517-2 parishes as needed to attend to those responsibilities.

In some "extremely rural" dioceses — such as those in Alaska and Montana — that can still be a challenge, says Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

But Pacione says the model works well at St. Pius X. The parish of 1,300 families draws on priests from Loyola University Maryland and nearby parishes, as well as semiretired members of its own staff.

"We've been so blessed," she says. "Our priests have become members of our community in their own right. You'd never know we don't have a pastor."

With the number of Catholics in the United States continuing to grow — helped by immigration from Latin America and other largely Catholic regions — and the number of priests still in decline, the church is actively supporting the growth in the lay ecclesial ministry.

Aspiring lay ministers can now pursue formal coursework at many Catholic institutions, including the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore.

But while the number of lay ministers has doubled since 1990, the smaller number of pastoral life directors has remained essentially flat.

Gautier says the center has identified just one key factor: the attitude of bishops.

Confronted with shortages of priests, she said, many prefer other strategies: asking priests to cover more than one parish, importing foreign priests, even closing parishes.

In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, 20 priests now serve more than one parish, but archdiocese leadership has long supported the pastoral life director model.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, Baltimore's archbishop from 1989 to 2007, was an early proponent, and current Archbishop William E. Lori extended the six-year terms of all his pastoral life directors shortly after taking office in 2012.

Women serve other prominent roles in the archdiocese. Barbara McGraw Edmondson is superintendent of schools; Diane L. Barr is chancellor, or head lawyer.

"The church has settled on the priesthood, but there are already many women in executive and other high-level positions," Caine said. "Our job is to make them more visible, so that young girls and young women can see that and recognize it and take it into account" when weighing career options or how to serve the church.

It was Keeler who invited Pacione to become one of the first such leaders in the archdiocese in 2002.

He was familiar with her service. She had been director of youth ministry at her home parish, served as family life director for the diocese, and was working as a pastoral associate at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, where she had led a $1.8 million capital campaign for renovations.

She had also helped her husband, Mark, an internationally known youth ministry leader, plan and orchestrate the 1995 visit of Pope John Paul II to Baltimore.


Still, she took weeks to accept. Pacione says she knew few of her fellow Catholics were aware the position existed, and at St. Pius X, where the previous priest pastor had taken ill, parishioners would probably expect a priest — and a man — to take over.


The Rev. Louis Reitz, an assisting priest who has served the church since 1969, says members and even staffers were "probably a little resistant" to their new leader at first, but her determination to involve parishioners in every major decision won the community over.

In 13 years at the helm, Pacione has worked an average of 10 hours a day, six days a week, commuting back and forth from Fallston in her 2001 Honda.

Among her achievements: leading a $1.5 million capital campaign to finance sanctuary renovations and starting the first Catholic Montessori school in the archdiocese.

Mark Pacione died suddenly in 2014, one reason Pacione says she has decided to refocus on family. She plans to retire at the end of March.

"It's time someone else sat in this chair and worked with all these wonderful people," she said.

Reitz says St. Pius X will survive, but it won't be as easy as it looks.

"The Lord guides these things, but Carol has kept this place going without ruffling any feathers to speak of, and that's a remarkable thing in any parish," he says. "We're going to miss her."

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