Catholics, once rare in the South, are overloading parishes

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The pews are packed at many Charlotte-area Roman Catholic churches, but a scarcity of priests is leaving even some of the biggest parishes short-staffed and scrambling for help from retired and visiting clergy.

Recent examples aren't hard to find:

Just one full-time priest for months at 13,000-member St. Gabriel in Cotswold.

A pastor's heart bypass operation, with complications, that left 14,000-member St. Mark in Huntersville struggling to find substitutes to celebrate Mass.

A sanctuary so crowded on Ash Wednesday that a parishioner at St. Matthew in Ballantyne, where two priests serve a flock of 28,000, called the fire marshal.

Why not just build more churches? Not enough priests to staff them.

And while four newly ordained priests will be assigned to Charlotte diocesan churches this summer, some of the busiest Catholic pastors in town are just a few years shy of retirement age.

The graying of the priesthood and the shortage of priests are old news in parts of the country that have long had large Catholic populations. But the crisis is starting to touch the Charlotte area, where Catholics — once a tiny minority — have surged in the last few decades. They now make up the largest denomination in Charlotte if you count children, which Catholics do.

To help replenish the clergy ranks, a few veteran local pastors are even calling for the Vatican to consider allowing the ordination of married men — a suggestion that virtually no one expects Pope Benedict XVI to seriously entertain.

"I wouldn't say the problem is down the road. It's already here," says the Rev. Frank O'Rourke, pastor at St. Gabriel, where his solo stint lasted for three months last year. "If you can't open parishes because of a lack of priests, then the problem is today, not just tomorrow."

Clergy shortages are also a concern in some Protestant denominations. But the Catholic situation is especially acute because of two factors: the large increases in congregations and the pivotal role of the priest in the Catholic Mass, which centers on Communion.

"Catholic services do not function without a priest present," says Monsignor John McSweeney, pastor at St. Matthew since mid-1999.

At least the Diocese of Charlotte isn't closing parishes, which is happening in places like Boston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

With so many Catholics migrating here from the Northeast, the Midwest and Latin America, the challenge is often to do more with fewer priests.

McSweeney had been ready to implement a plan to reduce overcrowding at St. Matthew by adding even more Sunday morning Masses. Then one of the church's four priests left to help O'Rourke at St. Gabriel and another suffered a stroke.

"Our priests are being stretched very, very thin," says Dan Hines, the head usher at the megachurch.

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