The steady drop in the number of Catholic priests on Long Island and across the country is causing widespread use of retired priests to administer sacraments in parishes, an increase in priests from foreign countries to answer the need in the United States and cancellation of Masses in some cases.
The Rev. Andrew Connolly, 83, of Copiague, who retired in 2005 after a ministry spanning nearly five decades, said he is in regular demand to celebrate Masses at parishes and orders of nuns.
When the Diocese of Rockville Centre was created in 1957, a year after he was ordained, "a one-priest parish was pretty much unknown," said Connolly, who served in parishes in both Nassau and Suffolk counties and in the diocese's mission to the Dominican Republic. "Now it's common. Priests are stretched out."
The Rev. Joseph W. Staudt, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church in Mattituck and Sacred Heart parish in Cutchogue, said the lack of priests forced him to bring in a retired diocesan priest and two priests from the Montfort order to help celebrate Masses.
"The shortage of priests is impacting now," he said. "We can't keep up with the demand."
This month, Staudt lost the assistance of those fill-in priests and decided to cut the number of Masses on Sundays from three to two. The retired diocesan priest had become too ill and could not continue, while one of two priests from the Montfort order was transferred and the other went on sabbatical.
A Saturday evening Mass remains, along with his normal routine of weddings, funerals, baptisms, confessions, oversight of a parochial school and running the parish.
"It's not healthy emotionally, spiritually and psychologically for a priest to 'over-celebrate,' " said Staudt, 63, who was ordained in 1978 and has worked in parishes across the Island. "When you throw yourself into a homily and you invest yourself, it's a spiritual and emotional exhaustion and drain. It's wonderful, but it still takes its toll."
Dropping over decades
The decline has continued for more than four decades, both locally and nationally. While some men continue to pursue the priesthood, experts on the church say the number of priests retiring, leaving active ministry or dying is substantially greater. The number of those entering seminaries also has dropped; reasons that experts cite include a general decline in interest in organized religion and the Catholic church's requirement of celibacy.
"In general, everyone is aware . . . that there is a need for more priests," said the Rev. Shawn McKnight of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., the bishops' main umbrella organization.
Bishop William Murphy, spiritual head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, said in a letter to priests last month that talk of a "priest shortage" is misguided, and that whatever the numbers may show, the diocese is thriving.
The diocese, which covers Nassau and Suffolk, -- with 1.5 million Catholics, the nation's sixth-largest -- had 568 priests in 1970 compared with 391 today, according to annual editions of The Official Catholic Directory, an authoritative source. That includes active and retired priests, as well as diocesan priests and those of religious orders such as the Jesuits and the Franciscans. The mandatory retirement age is 75.
Nationally, the number of active diocesan priests -- that is, priests who belong to particular dioceses and usually work in parishes -- dropped from an all-time high of 31,350 in 1970 to 16,880 currently, said Mary Gautier of Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
At the same time, the number of Catholics in the country has grown about 1 percent a year since the 1950s, to at least 67 million, said Gautier, the center's senior research associate.
That translates to an average of 1,450 Catholics per priest in 1970 compared with about 4,000 per priest today, Gautier said. The average number of active diocesan priests per parish also dropped from two in 1965 to one in 2010, according to the center.
The number of newly ordained priests doesn't come close to filling the gap: Last year, 494 seminarians were ordained nationwide, down from 994 in 1965.
The Rev. Anthony Cutcher, president of the Chicago-based National Federation of Priests' Councils, the oldest and largest association of Catholic priests in the country, called the drop "a huge, multifaceted problem."
With all the demands on their time, priests can be hindered from ministering to parishioners in ways other than Masses, funerals, baptisms and confessions -- for instance, listening to someone with a problem or seeking advice.
"Even if I have the time, very often I don't have the energy to sit and actively listen and be present to someone in a time of crisis," said Cutcher, echoing what he said he hears from priests around the country.
Dioceses are taking several approaches to address the need. Many are stepping up recruiting efforts to attract more seminarians. And in a trend that has grown over the past two decades, priests from other countries come here to serve for a limited number of years.
Dennis McCarthy, 67, a lifelong parishioner and former altar boy at Our Lady of the Snow in Blue Point, said he has experienced the change. "In Blue Point we've seen a steady stream for the last 20 years of very good priests from Ghana" who assist the pastor, he said.
About one-quarter of the priests working in parishes nationwide are international priests, Gautier said. The largest number have come from India, followed by the Philippines, Nigeria, Ireland and Mexico.
Bishop: No 'priest shortage'
Murphy noted in his recent letter to priests that the diocese recently organized a day of appreciation for more than 125 secular and religious priests from other countries who volunteered "to come and work with us in priestly ministry in our diocese."
In the letter, Murphy took issue with describing the situation as a "priest shortage." He said he ordained four priests in June and the diocese has about 40 men studying for the priesthood at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers.
"Anyone talking about a 'priest shortage' is talking nonsense. Numbers are not the criterion," Murphy wrote. "I have never used the term and never will. Anyone who does simply does not understand the church or, worse, is seeking to sensationalize or cast aspersions on the church, which, in our diocese, is healthy, vibrant and alive. There never will be sufficient priests, but it is irresponsible and insulting to talk about 'priest shortage.' "
Murphy declined to be interviewed. Sean Dolan, a diocesan spokesman, declined to provide current or past numbers of priests on Long Island. He sent an email to priests throughout the diocese strongly advising against commenting to Newsday, according to several priests who received the email.
Cutcher said some dioceses -- including the Archdiocese of New York -- are closing, merging or clustering parishes in part to deal with the decline in priests. That has not happened on Long Island.
The Rev. Edward J. Kealey, 77, is filling in at several parishes in Suffolk County. He retired as pastor of St. Sylvester parish in Medford in 2011.
For some of his 17 years in that parish, Kealey said, he celebrated all five weekend Masses because the number of priests there dropped from four when he arrived in 1994 to one.
"It was a lot, but I enjoyed it immensely," he said."You get into the swing of it."
Still, by the end of the weekend's Masses early Sunday afternoon, "I'd be happy to sit down and do nothing for the rest of the day."
The Rev. William Brisotti, 71, pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch, said finding priests to assist in his parish -- where he is the only priest -- is particularly difficult because Masses are celebrated in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole.
Planning for Masses
For holy days such as Easter, he said, the parish must plan months ahead of time to make sure it has enough priests.
Connolly, the retired priest from Copiague, recalled how in one parish where he was based recently, three priests from outside came in to take turns celebrating Mass in Spanish for Latino congregants. But there was "nobody working with the community," he said. "To just have a priest come in to celebrate Mass is not adequate. There's a lot of deeper things a priest should deal with."
In addition, the number of years a new priest spends as an associate, training in a parish under an experienced pastor, has been sharply reduced -- from an average of 20 to 25 years before 1980 to an average of three to five years today, Cutcher said.
Many parishes also rely far more on deacons, who can perform some priestly duties, such as preaching at Mass, witnessing marriages and conducting baptisms. The number of deacons in the United States has grown from 898 in 1975 to 17,464 now, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Among some Catholics, bigger-picture solutions to increase the ranks of priests are on the table, such as allowing married priests or the ordination of women, though the latter is far less likely anytime soon, according to church experts.
The Rev. Jerry DiSpigno, 58, pastor of Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church in Bellport, said he has come up with one solution to deal with the current pressures. DiSpigno, who said he was on the verge of burnout at one point, has created a retreat house in the woods on Long Island where he and other priests can go for rejuvenation.
When DiSpigno first served in the parish three decades ago, he was one of three priests. Now, he is the only one.
"You have to pray. You have to play. You have to eat right. You have to take care of the body," DiSpigno said. "Priests who do that will be more effective. Priests who don't do that will burn out."