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Retiring priests leave void in dioceses nationwide, Catholic leaders say

Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patron Wong, secretary for seminaries

Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patron Wong, secretary for seminaries for the Congregation for Clergy at the Vatican, speaks with Fr. Joe Kim, of California, after addressing priests from around the world during a conference on vocations to the Catholic priesthood held at the Hyatt in Hauppauge, Sept. 23, 2014. Credit: Heather Walsh

Many Catholic dioceses nationwide continue to struggle to attract enough priests, though some church leaders gathered for a national vocations conference in Hauppauge said they see signs of hope.

About 250 priests, mainly from the United States -- along with Pope Francis' point man for seminaries worldwide -- are convening for the weeklong conference organized by the Huntington-based National Conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors.

The men are sharing success stories and best practices, providing support to one another and looking for inspiration.

Many said they face challenging situations in their home dioceses, though it is a spiritual calling to Jesus Christ that is mostly responsible for how many candidates step forward.

The Diocese of Superior in northwest Wisconsin has 40 priests serving 75,000 Catholics in 105 parishes, many of them spread out in the rural region, said the Rev. Patrick McConnell, vocation director for the diocese.

Four to five priests are retiring or leaving for medical reasons each year, and "at best" one new priest is ordained each year, McConnell said. "If we keep up that rate, we're going to be hurting," he said.

Still, there are five men in the seminary now, and a potential six or seven other candidates, he said. "The men that are stepping forward -- they're amazing, top-quality men," McConnell said.

The Archdiocese for the Military Services USA, which recruits priests nationwide to serve as chaplains for the U.S. armed forces, has about 225 active-duty chaplains today but needs at least double or triple that to meet the needs of American soldiers, sailors and airmen at home and abroad, said the Rev. Aidan Logan, head of vocations for the archdiocese.

"If we had another 200, we could just barely cover what we need to," he said.

But some dioceses are holding their own and see hope in growing numbers of seminarians. Kenrick-Glennon Semina-ry in St. Louis, which trains future priests in the Midwest, has 130 seminarians, its highest number in two decades, said John Gresham, its academic dean.

The Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, has 90 priests serving about 80,000 Catholics in a 37,000-square-mile region, said Pablo Migone, the diocese's director of vocations. It also has 13 seminarians.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre faces similar challenges as other places, said the Rev. Joseph Fitzgerald, vocations director. Rockville Centre ordained six men this year and expects five more new priests next year.

But, he said, some of the "big years" of retirements -- as many as 20 or so a year -- are coming up.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, told Newsday the state of vocations in the United States is "not too bad."

"Things are looking good," he said. "We could use many more. But the good news is they're not sinking anymore."

He added: "The good news is that the pessimism of a dozen, 15 years ago seems to have evaporated and most dioceses report a steady if not slightly increasing numbers."

Mary Gautier of Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate said the number of seminarians has been stable for 15 years, but "are still only about a third as many as are needed."

The number of seminarians across the country has increased each year, from 3,172 in 1995 to 3,631 this year, according to Gautier's organization at Georgetown. At the same time, the number of priests nationwide has slipped from 49,054 to 38,275 this year.

Archbishop Jorge Carlos Patrón Wong, secretary for seminaries for the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, told Newsday he will report back to Pope Francis that the church here has "created a vocations culture, a joyful vocations culture. . . . The Holy See is aware of the gift that the American Catholic Church can bring to the world."

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