Half a dozen seniors gather in the small chapel of Hamilton Hills assisted living facility in Turtle Creek, east of Pittsburgh on a weekday morning.
Deacon Herb Riley of St. Colman Church leads a service here every week. As he hands out sheet music for opening and closing hymns, the seniors ask about the health of his newest grandchild.
As part of his unpaid duties, the 62-year-old assists with charitable work for the sick and homebound, and with sacraments like marriages and baptisms.
But he’s not a priest - and as a married man, can’t become one.
Riley said the priest shortage has really caught up to the diocese. There are currently about 200 priests in active ministry. The diocese projects that only 112 diocesan priests will be available in seven years. Riley said a few priests used to be assigned to each parish. Now, one priest will lead a grouping of multiple parishes.
The reorganization plan called On Mission for the Church Alive! was implemented last month. It consolidated 188 parishes into 57 parish groupings, which span a six county region. Priests have to merge the parishes as communities and businesses.
“We’re barely paying our bills,” said Riley. "So that’s where we are."
Although Riley’s new priest will be tasked with leading St. Colman’s, St. John Fisher, and St. Jude, for Riley, there will be a nice perk to being a part of a larger community. “Maybe my homilies, I’ll be able to reuse them with people who’ve never heard them before,” he said.
St. Colman parishioner Sue Buchholz is also looking forward to the new blood. She said when the final groupings were announced, she took it upon herself meet with other churchgoers, and even volunteered at their festivals.
She’s remained optimistic, but knows it won’t be easy.
“As we all know, the older we get the more we get set in our ways,” she said. “We don’t like change and our grouping is somewhat older, so I knew it was going to be difficult.”
Per the reorganization blueprint, the first year is all about getting to know each other. The mass schedule will rotate through different parish buildings. Buchholz said her strategy will be to attend services at other churches, and invite people to hers. She also encourages people to stand at the door of St. Colman’s and greet newcomers. She said in this case, attitude is everything. She said her parish must be “positive and welcoming and understanding, and listen. Let’s just take it one step at a time. We’re all one community. We’re not a building.”
But for many parishioners, the building matters.
Deacon Riley said that although parish infrastructure won’t even be discussed for at least a year, one of parishioners’ greatest concerns is whether or not their church is going to close.
“My church where I received all of my sacraments ... I grew up here,” said Riley. “And they don’t want to lose that. But the reality is we can’t keep all the buildings open. We just can’t afford to do that … and with the numbers we have now, we don’t need all these buildings.”
And those numbers could continue to drop. Mass attendance across the diocese has fallen by about 100,000 people since the year 2000, and a sexual abuse crisis in the church hasn’t helped. Riley said someone talks to him about it every day, and he knows people are leaving the church because of it.
Buchholz said the only thing to do is to remain faithful.
“Unfortunately there were some horrific things that happened, and we admit that, we admit that, we don’t deny it,” she said. “But we have to stay focused on what we’re all about. And we’re about Jesus Christ.”
In addition to focusing on that mission and serving the faithful, the reorganization strategy is also intent on growing the church.
“People think of evangelization of knocking on people’s doors and try to convince them to come to church,” said Riley. But he said to him, evangelization means looking inward, and making the church a place that people want to be.
“If we can provide programs and opportunities for people that were never provided in the past, it may be an opportunity to draw back people we may have lost in the past, and especially do that with our young people,” said Riley.
According to the diocese, the first few weeks with the new mass schedule have been a little rocky as church groupings work out the logistics, but people are already starting to get to know each other.