With Father Patrick Carrion away, a nun led a morning service last week at St. Mary Star of the Sea, directing the gathering of 15 worshippers in Catholic hymns and prayers, and distributing the Communion that the priest had consecrated before leaving.
The pastor could not find another priest to fill in for him while he left his South Baltimore congregation to take a brief vacation. He returned in time to say four weekend Masses, but in the meantime left condensed daily worship services to Sister Victoria Staub.
This circumstance at one parish underscores the critical shortage of priests across the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In response, church leaders are asking its 153 parishes to evaluate Mass schedules and consider cutting back, particularly if similar services are offered nearby. In Baltimore alone, there are 50 parishes. Several within blocks of each other have identical Mass schedules and many services are lightly attended.
"If three parishes in the same area … all have 5 p.m. Mass on Saturday that are one-third full, why not schedule one Mass?" said Sean Caine, spokesman for the archdiocese, which includes more than 500,000 Catholics.
Nearly half of the archdiocese's 153 active priests will reach the retirement age of 70 within the next 15 years, and 17 are already eligible to retire, church officials said. If the trend continues, there may be fewer than 100 priests by 2025.
Carrion's congregation has already experienced the problem to a greater degree than many other churches. He is the pastor and lone priest serving the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, a grouping of three parishes — St. Mary's, Holy Cross and Good Counsel — with about 1,200 members in all. The churches became one community in 2002 in response to the scarcity of priests and their own declining congregations.
While the number of American Catholics has remained fairly constant at about 22 percent of the population, the number of priests continues to decline, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
"When the number of priests comes close to the number of parishes, the problem is approaching critical," said Mark Gray, senior research associate. "Unless there is a significant increase in ordinations, the shortage will only get worse."
Some scholars trace the decline in priestly vocations to the sweeping changes, including alterations to the Mass, that occurred in the church after Vatican II, a council of church leaders who worked on areas of religious concerns from 1962 to 1965.
Many Catholics found the changes difficult to accept and vocations to the religious life have fallen off ever since. Also, many men have been unwilling to dedicate their lives to the priesthood and its vows of celibacy and service.
In a recent letter to parishioners, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said the shortage dominated discussion at his annual meeting with priests last month. And with fewer men entering the priesthood, the numbers will drop lower, he said. Ordinations to the priesthood have averaged about three each year for the past three decades, Caine said. This year only one candidate was ordained and he is in his 60s. Another 33 seminarians are preparing for the priesthood.
"The overarching issue is that we have to take a hard look at our priest numbers and what is coming down the pike as far as retirements," Caine said. "Our resources are not inexhaustible."
The archdiocese says it has no plans to close parishes, though officials are just beginning to evaluate the impact of the priest shortage. The results of the discussions could help O'Brien decide the fate of aging church campuses that no longer serve large congregations.
The reviews prove similar to the way church officials addressed the archdiocesan schools' declining enrollment and aging infrastructure. That study resulted in the closing of a dozen elementary schools and Cardinal Gibbons High School in June. Nearly 2,000 students were displaced and many did not return to a Catholic school this year.
The archbishop has assured parishioners that the decision process will be open, transparent and inclusive; many complained that the discussion that led to school closings was not public enough.
In other parts of the country, the nationwide shortage has led to church closings, particularly in urban areas. The St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese last week unveiled a plan to close at least seven churches and cluster others under one pastor.
"People here seem to understand these changes are necessary," said Dennis McGrath, director of communications for the diocese of about 800,000. "We are dealing with shifting demographics, declining attendance and, at least in the short term, fewer priests."
In Carrion's South Baltimore congregation and a nine-parish community in Western Maryland, the archdiocese says it has found a successful scheduling model.
Although worshiping at a different church is not always an easy transition, most said they prefer it to closing their parish.
"This is something that is happening everywhere in the country because we don't have enough priests and no one wants to see a church close," said Diane Ryan, a member of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore parish council.
But for those who have worshipped at the same church all their lives, the new schedule can be difficult. Ben Niroda, 78, grew up in Holy Cross parish. He attended the service at St. Mary's Wednesday.
"I want to go to Mass daily, but I miss my old parish, where I have spent my whole life," he said.
In one of his first official acts as pastor, Carrion eliminated two of the six weekend services and rotated weekday services among the three churches. The decision came after lengthy consultations with his flock and helped reduce demands on his time.
"Before this, Father was literally running around on roller skates," said Betty Metzler, a religious education teacher for parish children. "His time with people was so limited."
It has taken about a year, but parishioners have adapted to the schedule, Carrion said. They fulfill their Sunday obligation at the time best suited to them, but, maybe, not at the place that has been their lifelong church home.
The strain is particularly difficult for older priests, many of whom are remaining on the job because there is nobody to replace them.
When Monsignor Paul Cook was ordained in 1959, there were about 400 seminarians preparing for the ministry. At 77, Cook is pastor to about 10,000 families at the St. Joseph church and school in Cockeysville and retirement is not on the horizon. He has two assistant priests, one of whom ministers to the growing number of Latino parishioners.
"I know the shortage is getting critical because many of our older retirees are reaching the point where they can no longer help," Cook said."There is a lack of young men in the pipeline."
In monthly meetings with pastors of five other parishes along the York Road corridor, consolidating schedules has not moved beyond discussion, he said. Weekend Masses are well attended at these suburban parishes and weekday Masses run from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the different churches.
The archdiocese remains committed to providing pastoral care and preserving the bond of community between priests and their parishes, O'Brien's letter says. He has asked pastors to encourage congregations to participate more actively in church ministries and to help foster vocations to the priesthood.
"Priests have been aware of this shortage for a long time and it's taking a toll on them," Caine said. "The issue is certainly important enough to raise the attention of the laity."
In South Baltimore, parishioners have adapted to a schedule that offers one weekend Mass at each church and a Sunday evening Mass, which has become popular with young adults, at Holy Cross.
"There is a lot of commonality in this community," Carrion said." You might go to a different church, but you see the same people."
Doris Comet, 74, a lifelong member of St. Mary Star of the Sea, said she has adjusted.
"We switch churches depending on what time we want to go to Mass," she said. "We are all one church now and working together as a family."
When Carrion is away, Sister Victoria, director of mission and ministries, fills in where she can and keeps a list of priests' cell phone numbers in case of an emergency. She had to call on her pastor's brother, Father Michael Carrion, for a funeral Mass Tuesday.
"We are always aware of the diversity in our parish community and remain attentive to all those needs," said Sister Victoria, director of mission and ministries. "The transition can be hard, but now everyone feels included."