The Catholic Bishop of Vermont, Christopher Coyne, ascended the altar of St Joseph’s Cathedral in Burlington this month to announce what at first glance seemed like good news.
âWe have come to a place where things can get back to normal,â he said.
Coyne was speaking about the state lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, allowing Vermont’s largest religious denomination to reopen its 68 parishes to full capacity before the pandemic. But he said it during an annual ordination of the clergy which, like too many years passed, only welcomed one new priest.
When Louis de Goesbriand became the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont when it was founded in 1853, he led a clergy of 52. This figure has grown over time to 274 in 1975, but has dropped in the last half. century to 181 in 1985, 151 in 1995, 83 in 2005, and a historic low of 50 today.
The diocese circumvented the decline by asking parishes to regroup or close (from 130 in 2001 to 68 today), to adapt the times of masses, to share pastors or to welcome priests from other countries. .
The latter option faces its own challenges. The diocese says changes in U.S. immigration procedures will require five international priests – three from the Philippines and one from India and Nigeria – from this month, as their religious worker visas will expire before they can apply for the permanent residence.
Add retirements and transfers and the diocese will lose eight priests on July 1.
âThe immigration complication was completely unexpected,â Coyne said in a statement. âEven though these priests want to stay with their parishes here in Vermont, they have to go home now so they can return to Vermont in 12 months. “
As a result, the diocese redistributes 15 priests among different parishes and leaves churches without clergy in Grand Isle, Proctor Putney, Troy and West Rutland.
âI have tried to do everything I can to make sure that as many parishes and churches continue to have pastors,â Coyne said. “I know it will be difficult for a while for these ‘priestless’ parishes, but we will try to cover Sunday Mass and the sacraments as much as possible.”
The shortage of clergy is not unique to the state; it is rampant in Catholic churches in New England and across the country. Over the past 50 years, the number of American priests has fallen by nearly 40%, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, DC
In Vermont, the diocese has lost 101 priests and 20 more to departures or dismissals over the past 30 years. In the same period, he ordained 34 priests and welcomed four other orders.
The trend is expected to worsen: about 20 percent of the state’s current priests are 60 or older, while less than 10 percent are 35 or younger.
Many Catholics in Vermont – numbering from 142,000 in 1990 to 112,000 today – have suggested that the church ordain married women and men, only to be told the Vatican does not approve. .
Instead, the diocese is increasingly turning to online options and its lay members.
âWe need to be open to new ideas, such as trained parish administrators who can manage the day-to-day operations of the parish with visiting clergy to celebrate the liturgy and the sacraments,â said Bishop John McDermott, the assistant to the parish. bishop, at Vermont Catholic magazine. âWe will need the involvement and support of the lay community like never before. “