The personnel board and I have a huge challenge. There are now 157 parishes in the Diocese of Green Bay, which comprises 16 counties in northeast Wisconsin. Ten years ago there were 220 parishes. Now after the implementation of a planning process for parishes, there are 157 and still there are not enough priests to fill those 157 pastoral assignments. Presently, we have 89 active priests and 74 retired priests. Many of the retired priests are helping us sacramentally by celebrating Masses and other sacraments in places where there is no assigned pastor but a parish director. They also assist in other situations where the pastor needs sacramental assistance to cover all of the Masses and other sacramental needs. This year, seven priests have been granted retirement status as a “senior priest,” some of them working beyond 70 or even 75.
As they say, all you have to do is to “do the math” to know that it takes a lot stretching of both active and retired priests to cover the need. Not all retired priests are able, healthwise, to help out in parishes as much as they would be willing and like to assist. We are very fortunate to have the “parish directors” who manage the parishes where there is no pastor assigned, which is a provision for those dioceses that do not have enough priests. We are also grateful for the ministry of permanent deacons and lay ministers for their considerable contribution to parish life.
It is necessary to face the challenge. We have to look more seriously in the diocese at being able to be even more flexible than we have, especially on the part of priests and parish communities who have had their pastor for a long time and may need to move to another locale for the sake of answering the greater needs of the diocese. While these moves are not easy, especially where a pastor is deeply loved and appreciated, we all have to take the larger view so that the needs of other parts of the diocese can also be addressed and met. Since the Second Vatican Council, the church has decided that parishes are not to be the benefices of a pastor. In other words he does not have the privilege of a parish for a lifetime, and the Code of Canon Law determines that there are to be terms of assignment for priest assignments. The determination of the years of those terms has been relegated to each country’s episcopal conference. The episcopal conference of the United States has determined that a term as pastor is to be for six years with a possibility to renew for another six-year term, the total being an assignment of 12 years.
We have been blessed in the diocese in the last few years with an increasing number of seminarians and this is continuing to improve. However, it takes a series of years, at least six and sometimes eight, to educate a future priest. It will be some time before we see the benefit of newly ordained priests. Then, they must have time in parishes as parochial vicars or “associate pastors” in order to be prepared to serve as pastors in our communities. We thank God for these young men who are responding to God’s call to the diocesan priesthood in this diocese. I thank you for all of your prayers and sacrifices for an increase of vocations to which the young people in our diocese are called, both for the priesthood and for the religious life as religious brothers and sisters.
I ask you, brother priests and good people of this diocese, to cooperate with me in taking care of the needs of all of the parishes in the 16 counties of the diocese. We all need to have the necessary flexibility in responding to the exigencies of the entire diocese. When we are ordained to the priesthood we promise the bishop and his successor bishops obedience and respect. We are ordained to serve the diocese not just an individual parish.
Many of you have gone “above and beyond the call of duty” as you had to face the closure of your parish, or the consolidation or merger of your parish, with other neighboring parishes. This has especially affected our rural areas and has been as well done as could be expected, but not without suffering and some cost to the Catholic community. Since I arrived here, I have called a moratorium on the closure of parishes unless it is absolutely necessary. The only way out of this scarcity is by recruiting more priests and experiencing an increase in seminarians for the priesthood. God is answering our prayers. Until such time as we reap the benefit of these new vocations, I ask for your cooperation and understanding. If we all make the necessary sacrifices when called upon, we will make it through this trying time. God bless and reward your generosity.