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Thursday, Aug. 25, 2016

Shortage of priests, ministers is growing

Sunday, January 12, 2003

The Rev. Normand Varone serves the St. Denis Parish in Benton and the St. Lawrence Parish in New Hamburg.
BENTON -- For the past five years, the Rev. Normand Varone has juggled the responsibilities of assisting two church parishes on a daily basis.

Today, he's still fulfilling his duty as a Catholic priest at both St. Denis Parish in Benton, where Varone's been resident priest for the past nine years, and the St. Lawrence Parish in New Hamburg, in an effort to help ease the growing clergy shortage.

But Varone isn't alone.

The number of Catholic parishes without a resident priest in the United States increased from 549 in 1965 to the present 2,928, according to data provided by the U.S. bishops. Other religions are facing similar clergy shortages, too.

"I have to consider myself lucky in that the parishes are so close to each other," Varone pointed out. "Benton and New Hamburg are only five minutes away from each other. Some priests have to drive over 30 minutes from one parish to another."

Varone's day begins around 5 a.m. He conducts a 7 a.m. Mass at New Hamburg and an 8 a.m. Mass at St. Denis throughout the week. Two days a week, Varone teaches religion at the Catholic school at St. Denis.

Since the school in New Hamburg is a public school, Varone doesn't have to participate in school board meetings, teach classes or monitor home schooling, he said.

In addition to regularly scheduled Masses, Varone must attend to two parish councils, two St. Joseph Sodalities, two St. Ann Sodalities and any weddings, baptisms and funerals. Last year between the two parishes, he conducted about 16 weddings, he estimated.

Varone said the most difficult part of assisting two parishes is making sure he's fair to both parishes and gives them the attention they deserve.

One way Varone ensures fairness is by visiting church members of both parishes who are living in nursing homes during the week. "When I go, I don't just say, 'hello' and good bye,' I visit so it takes me at least a whole afternoon," he said. On Saturdays, Varone hears confessions at St. Lawrence beginning at 3:30 p.m. and conducts Mass at St. Lawrence at 4 p.m. Following the Mass, Varone hears confessions at 5:30 p.m. at St. Denis with Mass beginning at 6 p.m.

And on Sundays, Mass begins at 7 a.m. at St. Denis; 8:30 a.m. at New Hamburg; and 10 a.m. at St. Denis. If Varone has any free time on Sunday afternoons, he tries to relax by going to a school ballgame or just resting at home.

"I've just gotten use to the workload and have fallen into a pattern," Varone explained.

Because Varone has gotten so use to his current workload, he often worries that the priests who fill his position when he takes a vacation can handle it.

For example, one time a priest in his 80s was sent to fill in for Varone, but due to his age, Varone wasn't sure if the priest was healthy enough to take on the stress of covering both parishes. Varone decided to stay and help the priest.

"It was a good thing I stayed because the priest's homily (sermon) was so long, he would've been late for the other church's Mass. He wasn't use to the short time periods and traveling between Masses," Varone recalled.

He continued: "When I give a homily, it can last no more than 10 minutes, otherwise, I would always be late for the other Mass." Varone said.

Currently retired priest Jim Seyer fills in for Varone when needed, and he does a good job, Varone said. But like other clergy facing shortages, Varone worries about finding a substitute when Seyer can no longer assist him.

According to the data provided by the U.S. bishops, the number of priests in the United States has declined from 58,632 in 1965 to 44,874 in 2002, while the country's Catholic population rose during that same period from 45.6 million to 62.2 million.

"We need more priests," Varone said. "I pray at every Mass for an increase in the priest vocation."

More than half of U.S. parishes expect to reduce the number of Masses they offer within the next 10 years. At the same time, an increasing number of non-ordained ministers are performing pastoral duties and administering parishes.

"The bishop is saying we're ordaining less men and losing more men because of death and retirement," Varone said. If the shortage continues in the region, Varone predicted other parishes will have to share priests. For example, he said Oran and Chaffee or Kelso and Scott City parishes may have one priest between the two parishes.

St. Lawrence and St. Denis are the only Catholic churches in the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau that share the same priest on a weekly basis. Other churches in the Diocese may be combined with missionary parishes, and therefore the same priest may oversee two or more churches, but St. Lawrence is not a missionary parish, Varone added.

Even though Varone's job is a challenge and stressful at times, he's not complaining. "It's all for the glory of God," he said. "I love and enjoy being a priest."

So the question remains: Will the number of people in the clergy vocation continue to decline or is there an answer to the current shortage?

Varone replied, "Only God knows what the future holds."