“Do you resolve, with the Help of the Holy Spirit, to discharge without fail the office of Priesthood ... as a worthy fellow worker with the Order of Bishops in caring for the Lord’s flock?”
No priest gets ordained without answering, “I do” to this and several other questions asked by the ordaining bishop, including, “Do you promise to be obedient and respectful to me and my successors?”
Although most diocesan priests carry-out their ministry in parishes, they are ordained to assist the bishop in serving the entire diocese.
As such, priests usually get moved periodically as the needs of each parish and of the diocese as a whole evolve.
It is considered good and healthy for priests to grow in their capacity for ministry by serving in different parishes.
Priests who succeed one another in a parish often bring different gifts and skills to their ministry and acquire new wisdom and insight from a growing number of assignments.
The whole Church benefits from this.
The bishop must take into account all of these things, in addition to each priest’s strengths, health and wellbeing, as well as population trends and related considerations throughout the diocese, while assigning and reassigning priests.
He does so in prayerful consultation with the diocesan Priests’ Personnel Board and the priests themselves.
“The vision, objective and strategy of the Priests’ Personnel Board is to assist the bishop in exercising his serious responsibility of the placement of priests,” said Monsignor Robert A. Kurwicki, vicar general for the diocese and chairman of the Priests’ Personnel Board.
The bishop seeks advice and input from the board’s members to meet the short- and long-term goals for the whole diocese as articulated in the Diocesan Pastoral Plan.
The board has some appointed members and some elected members.
“All must be objective, diplomatic and discreet, as all priests share in accountability for service to God and to the people of the diocese,” said Msgr. Kurwicki. “The board encourages and supports both hope and reality.”
The Priests’ Personnel Board’s work has become increasingly difficult as the number of available priests continues to fall while their average age continues to rise.
Bishop Joseph M. Marling C.PP.S., who led this diocese for its first 13 years of existence, often spoke of “a dire shortage of priests” in this Heartland diocese.
There were 139 active diocesan priests serving in these 38 counties when the diocese was created in 1956.
Today, there are 42.
Back then, there were also 27 priests from religious orders or congregations serving in the diocese. There now are none.
The average age of the active priests in this diocese is now 56. The youngest is 31.
No seminarians are scheduled to be ordained to the Priesthood this year or next year.
Yet, there are still nearly as many parishes and missions within these 22,000 square miles as there were in 1956.
The diocese now has 23 retired priests, whose average age is 80.
Another priest of the diocese is serving as a chaplain of the Archdiocese of the Military Services USA.
There are currently 18 missionary priests from other countries serving in this diocese, whose average age is 54. Each will eventually be needed in his home diocese.
Meanwhile, due to shifting demographics and economics, many of the communities that once filled their local churches with congregants every Sunday and their schools every week are becoming smaller and older.
All of these factors call for prayerful, sacrificial solutions.
“Frankly, it’s not easy for anyone,” said Msgr. Kurwicki. “Priests grow to love the communities in which they serve. The people grow to love their priests in return.”
Each priest must become familiar with new communities while often taking on new responsibilities.
Yet, all of this is necessary for renewing the Church and keeping it focused on God and His universal, unchanging truth, rather than on individuals and individual personalities.
The sometimes necessary grouping of several parishes and missions under one pastor often brings changes in Mass times and the availability of sacraments.
“Sacrifices willingly accepted for the good of the whole make all of this possible and even salvific in some cases,” said Msgr. Kurwicki. “We offer these things up for God and for the good of one another.”
Father Gregory Meystrik, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Rolla, Immaculate Conception Parish in St. James and St. Anthony Parish in Rosati, recently wrote to his parishioners about Bishop W. Shawn McKnight’s May 11 Decree of Appointments.
It will include those parishes’ associate pastor retiring and not being replaced.
“At the 30,000-foot level, it means that our diocese is short on priests, and Bishop McKnight is doing his best to be pastoral and to set forth a plan as our chief shepherd,” Fr. Meystrik wrote.
He pointed out that in Phelps County, the number of weekend Masses will have to be reduced.
This will require prayer, cooperation and shared sacrifice — “looking out for the needs of our Phelps County community/communities, encouraging a patient and fruitful willingness to sacrifice together, and finding ways to bring forward strength and a faithful response and resolve in a time of change and challenge,” he said.
Fr. Meystrik noted that changes are inevitable throughout the diocese.
“The number of priests projected and anticipated to be of service in our diocese is to continue reducing at a steady rate: from 68 here in 2022, to 59 by 2029, the furthest year out in a 2020 projection, by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) of Georgetown University,” he wrote.
That boils down to roughly two fewer priests to serve in each deanery at a time when the average age of priests is steadily increasing.
“Please do not feel that you or we are being singled out or neglected,” he urged his parishioners. “The number of priests that we have in our diocese is what our Good Lord has provided from and for His people here.
“If anything, we are being trusted and respected that we can band together and make this work, building up the Church in this corner of the Lord’s Vineyard,” he stated.
This will involve building up a culture of vocation, active stewardship, and willing commitment, service and ministry within the Church.
A new parish model will need to developed, helping all members focus on service and ministry — less on the availability of clergy and more on the service and ministry of the whole Church, lay and available clergy, together, Fr. Meystrik stated.
“Going forward, we need to manage our expectations and consider our wants and needs in a new light,” he wrote.
He encouraged everyone to pray for all the clergy being transferred and retiring, “and especially for parishes experiencing changes.”
Msgr. Kurwicki, himself a pastor, offered some essential advice to the people who will be welcoming different priests to their communities this summer:
“Affirm, affirm, affirm!” he said. “Affirm their work in the vineyard of the Lord! And pledge to work with them in any way you can.”
A history enthusiast, he pointed to a decision the archbishop of St. Louis made nearly 120 years ago to reassign Monsignor Otto Hoog, the universally beloved pastor of St. Peter Parish in Jefferson City, to St. Louis to serve as vicar general of the archdiocese.
Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the city, including the board of aldermen, wrote to the archbishop, pleading with him to reconsider.
Instead, the archbishop sent Monsignor Joseph Selinger, who quickly earned the respect and love of his parishioners. The parish wound up naming its new hospitality building in his honor in 1938.
“Give your new pastor a chance!” Msgr. Kurwicki urged. “Pray for him and open yourself up to the gifts God wants to bestow on you through him. If there are cultural differences, do whatever you can do to help him feel welcome at home. If he has a heavier workload than his predecessor had, find out what you can do to smooth the path and help make it work.
“And be quick to remind your fellow parishioners that we are all one Church with one shepherd, and we really are all in this together,” he said.