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Spotlight Report

Amid decline, nine ordained as priests

Drop in enrollment worries Catholics

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff, 5/25/2003

As 2,000 people packed Boston's largest cathedral yesterday to watch Bishop Richard Lennon ordain nine priests, local Catholic church leaders expressed concern over dwindling enrollment at St. John's Seminary, the Boston Archdiocese's primary training ground for priests, where the number of incoming students has dropped by half since last year.

New priests are "very badly needed," Lennon said. But just a half-dozen new students have said they will enroll at the seminary next year, significantly fewer than in recent years. All are arriving with some prior theological training, so none will be placed in the first year of the program.

Slumping enrollment at seminaries, a national trend often linked to the priesthood's celibacy requirement, dates at least to the 1970s, long before recent revelations that top church officials tolerated sexual abuse by some priests.

There are "immediate reasons" for the fall-off, and "reasons that go back 40 or 50 years," Lennon said.

Nationally, the number of new priests ordained each year has slowly declined since peaking between 1965 and 1970, said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at The Catholic University of America. Ordinations dropped by 7 percent in the 1980s and another 7 percent in the 1990s, with five to 10 seminaries closing each decade, he said. Seminaries are currently replacing just 30 to 40 percent of priests who are retiring or resigning each year.

"People say the decline is over -- don't believe it," Hoge said. "There's no reversing it in the short run."

This spring, Boston Archdiocese leaders closed the seminary's four-year liberal arts college, where students could earn a bachelor's degree before moving into the six-year theology program. Enrollment in the college had slowed over the years, as fewer candidates for the priesthood arrived straight out of high school. Just 30 students were enrolled this year.

Enrollment has also fallen in the seminary's surviving School of Theology, where 75 to 80 students are expected next year. Fewer than five priests were ordained from the school last May. Of the nine priests ordained yesterday, seven are graduates of St. John's in Brighton, and two studied at Blessed John XXIII Seminary in Weston, designed for older students. The new priests will fan out to parishes around the state.

"If we could ordain eight or nine a year, we would have the coverage we need," said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese who serves on the seminary's admissions committee.

Instead, the numbers have been slipping, contributing to the closure of about 30 churches in the Boston Archdiocese in the last 12 years, and the "clustering" of churches that must share priests. At the same time, the average age of working priests has climbed into the 60s, and many are leaving. In recent months, the Boston Archdiocese has accepted "five or six" retirements, said Lennon, his face flushed after leading the 21/2-hour ordination service.

The bishop pointed to encouraging growth in the involvement of Catholic laypeople, some of whom earn master's degrees at the seminary before going on to work in churches as pastoral associates and religious education directors. But under the rules of the church, they cannot distribute communion, the ritual at the heart of the Catholic tradition. "That's become the challenge," said Lennon.

To help meet the challenge, the archdiocese is keeping priests assigned to college campuses, where young people make decisions about their vocations, Coyne said.

Another option for growth, ordaining women, has been rejected by the Vatican. Protesters outside the South End cathedral yesterday morning called for a change in the church's position on women priests.

Nationally, a growing emphasis by the Catholic church on recruitment is credited with trying to address the long decline in numbers. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church has encouraged parish leaders to talk more about the priesthood with young people, after a church-sponsored study found some young Catholics had an interest that drifted because no one ever encouraged it.

Jim Achadinha, 27, graduated from Boston University and considered becoming a teacher before enrolling at St. John's Seminary six years ago. He saw the program "not as a place where you necessarily become a priest, but where you see if God is calling you," he said. "Some guys stay a couple of years and leave, and some are still here six years later on ordination day."

A lot of his friends questioned his decision to enter the seminary, but he persevered. Ordained yesterday and assigned to a church in Woburn, he plans "to go out there and heal one person at a time," and said he's confident the next generation of priests will be found.

"I'm not worried about it, because I think God will provide for us," he said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/25/2003.
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