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In one diocese, Catholics bid small parishes goodbye

(ran SE edition of LT and W, S editions of CTI)

The moment long dreaded by many of this central Pennsylvania community's Roman Catholics now is at hand.

This weekend, 125 parishes across the 15-county diocese officially will be condensed to 99. Nearly 40 parishes have closed, and pastors will be installed at 13 new consolidated parishes .

Saying farewell to the old parishes _ many of them as familiar and as dear to their members as grandparents or old family friends _ has been wrenching for the Catholics of Harrisburg.

The pain such goodbyes can bring is being felt throughout the United States and as far away as Australia, said the Rev. Philip J. Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, an independent Catholic organization devoted to the renewal of pastoral ministry and parish life.

Catholic churches are closing and merging in scores of communities _ many older and urban, some industrial _ as parishioners shift to suburbs and the church struggles to make the best use of a dwindling number of priests.

The changes have led many Roman Catholics in the United States to re-examine their views of the male, celibate priesthood, according to Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, a Maryland-based group lobbying for women's ordination and married priests.

Catholics "really don't want these mega-churches" that are being formed by parish mergers, Fiedler said. "People prefer a smaller and more intimate prayer setting for the Eucharist."

If the Catholic Church permitted women and married men to be priests, there would be no priest shortage, she said, asserting, "There's only a shortage of male, celibate priests."

According to Richard A. Schoenherr, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the number of diocesan priests will have declined by 40 percent between 1966 and 2005, while the lay population increases by 65 percent.

The laity-to-priest ratio, according to Schoenherr, will have doubled between 1975 and 2005, from 1,100 to 2,200 Catholics per active priest.

In the Diocese of Harrisburg, 214 active priests served 194,100 Catholics in 1975, a ratio of one priest to 907 Catholics. The diocese now has 185 active priests to serve 227,242 Catholics _ a ratio of one priest to roughly 1,228 people.

In 1975, the diocese had 31 seminarians; it now has 13.

Last February, when he was outlining his consolidation plan, Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo said the Diocese of Harrisburg does not have a critical shortage of priests _ "if our priests are where our people are."

Many people continued to believe, however, that a priest shortage is behind the restructuring.

"Rather than to engage in a study of options for increasing our priestly population . . . permitting priests to marry or allowing for women clergy, our church has decided to create mega-parishes (with) 5,000 or more parishioners, with no personal identity in interaction," Anthony L. Crisci of Mechanicsburg wrote in a recent letter published in the Harrisburg Patriot-News. Crisci's St. Lawrence parish is merging with St. Patrick's Cathedral.

"The times have changed, the needs have changed, the populations have changed" _ and so the structure of parishes must change, said the Rev. Paul C. Helwig, diocesan secretary for clergy and religious life. Expanding the categories of people allowed to be priests, he added, is beyond the purview of any bishop.

In the past, Catholics have fashioned their own small communities within larger churches by forming social and prayer groups, and that can happen again, Helwig said.

Lawrence Lescanec Jr., a member of the Croatian church of St. Mary's, one of five Steelton-area parishes that are to form the consolidated Prince of Peace parish, does not question the hierarchy's commitment to a male, celibate priesthood.

He has other questions.

Like other St. Mary's parishioners, Lescanec does not want just any priest, but the Croatian-speaking Franciscan priests who have served St. Mary's for decades. A diocesan priest, the Rev. Samuel Houser, will take charge of Prince of Peace; the Franciscans are to leave.

In many regards, Lescanec is just the sort of Catholic that Pope John Paul II probably would like to have more of in the United States: While an August 1993 Gallup survey found that 63 percent of those Roman Catholics surveyed favored women's ordination and 75 percent favored allowing priests to marry, Lescanec is a staunch believer in the unmarried, male priesthood.

But the departure of the Franciscan priests and the end today of St. Mary's as Lescanec has known it have left him shaken.

Lescanec, who said he has attended Mass regularly all his life, says now that he is thinking about "maybe not even going back to church."

Wherever church consolidations occur, Murnion said, they can unleash deep emotions, as the need for responsible stewardship of resources clashes with the value most Catholics place on the physical trappings of worship _ churches, statues, stained-glass.

"It's within our tradition that places acquire a certain revered quality," Murnion said.