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Members of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Lackawanna know exactly who’s in charge of their small parish. And the person’s name is not preceded by the title “Father.” A priest has not run this ethnically mixed church in the city’s gritty 1st Ward for more than five years.

Instead, the parish relies on Sister Barbara Riter. In Catholic parlance, she is a pastoral administrator – a non–priest who performs many of the functions of a resident pastor.

“She’s the go-to person for everything. She runs the show, and she runs it smoothly,” said parishioner Evelyn Roulhac.

St. Anthony Church provides a glimpse into how more area Catholic parishes will operate in the not-so-distant future.

Like the high altar and the pipe organ, the resident pastor could become a thing of the past for many of Western New York’s 630,000 Catholics.

Taking the priests’ place will be pastoral administrators, used sparingly until now, but soon to be a “diocesanwide experience,” according to a local Catholic prelate.

Even with nearly 100 fewer parishes than a decade ago, the diocese is running out of priests.

More than half of its 180 active priests will reach retirement age by 2023, and only 20 men are expected to be ordained over the same span.

Thus, within a decade, the diocese will have 95 to 120 priests – well short of what is needed to staff the current 164 parishes.

The clergy shortage is forcing congregants to rethink the “priest-centric” way their parishes historically have operated, with area churches facing the possibility that a priest sometimes may not be available to celebrate a scheduled weekend Mass.

In those instances, pastoral administrators would lead something known as a “Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest” – not a Mass, but a service that would fulfill a Catholic’s weekend Mass obligation.

Catholic traditionalists worry that the use of pastoral administrators will diminish the uniqueness of the priesthood or open the door to the ordination of women, changing the character of the church.

But diocesan officials emphasize that only priests will consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions and celebrate Masses.

And they hope the addition of more pastoral administrators will make priests more available to parishioners for spiritual and theological matters.

“People will have access to the priest that they didn’t have before, because the priest was so busy,” said Dennis Mahaney, diocesan director of parish life. “We’re hoping to change the whole paradigm of pastoral leadership.”

Only a few dioceses across the country use pastoral administrators intensively.

But the idea isn’t entirely new.

Sister Mary Augusta Kaiser was appointed in 1993 to the former St. Mary of Sorrows Church on the East Side, although the position at the time was known as “parish life coordinator.”

A deacon served in the past as pastoral administrator at St. Patrick Church in Limestone, Cattaraugus County, and Deacon Paul F. Weisenburger and his wife, Mary, were pastoral administrators of St. Lawrence Church on East Delavan Avenue for several years until retiring in 2012. Deacons currently serve at St. John Kanty Church on Broadway and Swinburne Street and at two parishes in Allegany County.

But what had been experimental soon could be common.

To forestall the closing of more churches and to ensure sacraments such as the Holy Eucharist are still widely available, Bishop Richard J. Malone recently authorized more-liberal use of a provision in Catholic canon law that allows him to entrust the “pastoral care of a parish” with someone other than a priest.

And Malone will ask priests to discuss the new realities with parishioners early this year.

People take initiative

At St. Anthony of Padua – a mix of Catholics of Italian, Hispanic and African heritage – Sister Barbara performs something like a conductor.

“She has a way of getting people to work around here. Sometimes you just can’t say no to her,” said Edward Dean, an usher and parish council member. “Sister likes the people to do. It’s more like it’s our church and we should be a part of it.”

If a funeral needs planning, Sister Barbara is usually involved. If a big purchase has to be made, Sister Barbara signs off on it. And during weekend Masses, Sister Barbara can be spotted at the altar, delivering announcements and sometimes even a homily. They are all duties typically reserved for a priest pastor.

She gets the most satisfaction, though, helping parishioners accomplish their goals.

“I like stepping back and seeing people take initiative for creating good things,” she said.

Sister Barbara, fluent in Spanish, worked as a pastoral associate under a priest at Queen of All Saints, a largely Spanish-speaking parish that closed in a 1998 merger with St. Anthony.

She applied for the pastoral administrator post when it became clear there were no priests available to be pastor.

“I realize that many people would prefer to have a priest, but I like to think that this is a way that more ministry can be done because there is a shortage of priests right now,” she said. “The church’s ministry is being carried on by other people.”

At 76, Sister Barbara is older than many diocesan priests who have retired as pastors.

But she was not going to let age get in the way of living out her understanding of the church as inclusive of men and women in leadership posts, she said.

Sister Barbara is paid a stipend through the parish and does not live in the church rectory. She relies on two retired priests, the Rev. Henry A. Orszulak and the Rev. Vincent McCarthy, to celebrate most Masses and perform other sacraments. Technically, she is overseen by a priest moderator, Monsignor Paul J.E. Burkard, the pastor of nearby Our Lady of Victory Basilica, although Burkard’s role is limited.

The pastoral administrators are “highly qualified, just as any priest is qualified,” said Sister Regina Murphy, diocesan director of research and planning.

The priest moderators “don’t have to be there every minute,” added Murphy. “You have some supervisory tasks, but you’re not micromanaging.”

Collaborative ministry

Diocesan officials acknowledge that getting buy-in from some parishioners won’t be easy because the Catholic Church in the United States has a long tradition of the parish priest as pastor.

“People were brought up (that) always it had to be a priest. Father spoke. That was it,” said Auxiliary Bishop Edward M. Grosz.

As vicar general for the diocese, Grosz sits on the Diocesan Board of Parish Administrators, charged with implementing a plan to employ more pastoral administrators in churches.

“The parish is not the pastor. The parish is everybody working together,” he said.

Other dioceses that have employed liberal use of pastoral administrators, including the Diocese of Rochester, have reported that early trepidation among parishioners quickly turned positive.

“Very often, they like it better than what they had,” Mahaney said.

The diocese eventually will advertise for applicants and create a pool of potential parish administrator candidates, who will be required to have a master’s degree in pastoral ministry or theology and to complete an orientation course on parish finances and diocesan policies.

In the future, diocesan officials will look at both pastoral administrator candidates and priests in determining how a parish should be staffed when an opening occurs.

Diocesan officials envision a collaborative form of parish leadership that involves pastoral administrators handling most administrative and planning duties and priests serving as “sacramental ministers,” performing spiritual and liturgical functions more in line with their ministerial call and training.

“They were trained to be theologians and to be teachers and to be compassionate caregivers,” said Mahaney.

Inevitable change

Across the country, there are relatively few pastoral administrators.

In the 17,413 Catholic parishes in the United States, bishops employed just 428 pastoral administrators, usually in smaller rural or urban parishes.

But that number is expected to grow dramatically, as long as the priesthood keeps graying and the Vatican continues a policy restricting the priesthood to celibate males.

“Somebody needs to administer to all of these Catholics,” said Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire and an expert on Catholic identity and practice.

It turns out most Catholics in this country are very adaptable to change, especially if it allows parishes to stay open, said Dillon, co-author of the new book, “American Catholics in Transition.”

“The general sentiment is people are willing to put up with a lot of alternative structures,” she said.

Donald Grosso, a longtime member of St. Anthony, has no quibble with the move to a pastoral administrator.

Grosso said the adjustment was not much different than what happens with the appointment of a new priest pastor, who usually brings a different personality and leadership style from his predecessor.

“With the shortage of priests, pastoral administrators are inevitable. It’s just a matter of survival,” he said. “We’re just grateful our church is surviving.”

Sister Barbara and others said their expanding presence brings more talent, collaboration and energy into the life of the church.

“What’s good about it is women and married people can participate more fully in the ministry of the church and work more closely with priests. It extends the reach of the church,” she said. “It’s based on the concept that at baptism, we’ve all received gifts and we try to use them in the best way for the reign of God.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com