“Promito”: Vermonters and the Priesthood

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(Host) Thirty years ago, most of Vermont’s Catholic parishes had two or three priests serving in them. Today, even after the church has reduced the number of parishes, there is rarely more than one priest in service. Some priests are doing double duty, travelling between parishes.

The shortage of priests has affected many diocese around the country, but church officials here say the situation in Vermont is critical. There are fears the current scandal over priests and child sexual abuse will discourage men from entering the priesthood.

VPR’s Steve Zind looks at how the church is coping with fewer pastors and what life is like for a newly minted priest in Vermont.

(Zind) The century-old St. Mary’s Church sits on a rise overlooking downtown Middlebury. It’s the classic image of a Catholic church: an imposing pale marble building with dark stained glass windows, and a cavernous interior that echoes with the sound of the Church pipe organ. (Sound of organ music at Mass.)

St. Mary’s could hold hundreds of worshipers. But on this weekday morning, fifteen people celebrate Mass. The service is being performed by the Reverend Peter O’Leary. The 33-year old O’Leary is Vermont’s newest priest.

(O’Leary) "It is enough for the disciple that he become like the teacher and the slave that he become like the master. If they have called the master… if they have called the master of the house of Beelzebub, how much more are those of his household. The Gospel of the lord…."

(Zind) O’Leary was the only Roman Catholic priest ordained in Vermont last year. Officials with the Catholic Diocese of Burlington say Vermont is experiencing a severe shortage of priests. O’Leary won’t become a full-fledged pastor with his own parish for several years. In some ways, entering the priesthood is like starting any new job. There’s a steep learning curve at first:

(O’Leary) "I always heard that the first year of priesthood is the hardest. I always thought, ‘Well, I’ll be ready. That’s no problem. I’ve taken an honest look at it. I’ll be all set.’ But I wasn’t ready. (Laughs.) I wasn’t ready for the weddings, because I don’t know what to do!" (Laughs.)

(Zind) Recently, O’Leary has been getting help in Middlebury. Seventy-one-year old Reverend Charles Davignon is one of several Vermont priests who have postponed retirement because of the shortage:

(Davignon) "I’m thinking of myself every now and then as the diocesan Band-Aid…. In these couple of years, I’ve been in four different assignments, actually – Montpelier and Island Pond, Proctor and now Middlebury."

(Zind) The shortage has been decades in the making. Of the 130 parishes in Vermont, 94 now have resident pastors. In most cases, priests live alone in their communities. O’Leary says that fact wasn’t lost on his fellow seminarians:

(O’Leary) "I remember talking to a friend of mine in the seminary before I was ordained. And I remember he said he was freaking out about having to be alone up in Island Pond or something like that, or up in the Northeast Kingdom."

(Zind) There are only a half dozen Catholic priests in the state who are O’Leary’s age. The average age of a Vermont priest is about 63. O’Leary says he’s hopeful more young men will enter the priesthood:

(O’Leary) "In the seminary, I always thought about the shortage of priests and what it would be like in Vermont. I can remember thinking I was going to mission territory and I always wondered, ‘Well, maybe there’s a renewal coming.'”

(Zind) So far, the numbers don’t signal the renewal O’Leary is hoping for. Twelve seminarians are likely to enter the priesthood in Vermont over the next six years. In that time, at least twice as many priests are expected to retire. And the current sex abuse scandal may discourage men from entering the priesthood.

O’Leary and Davignon are critical of the way church officials in Boston and other Diocese outside Vermont have handled sexual abuse by priests. But they disagree on whether the scandal will result in fewer young men becoming priests:

(O’Leary) "I wonder if the men who were considering it, this doesn’t make much difference to them. I don’t know if it’s going to have a big impact on how many will come in."

(Davignon) "Oh, I think it’s going to definitely affect the interest that young men would have in the church. I think they’re going to be somewhat frightened by it. I can see parents saying, Let’s take a second look at this."

(Zind) There are other reasons why a young man might be reluctant to become a priest. Davignon and O’Leary cite the allure of the material world, fear of loneliness and the eight years of seminary school, not to mention the lifetime commitment to the job. O’Leary says he finds his work fulfilling, but he’s also aware of what he had to give up in order to become a priest:

(O’Leary) "…A wife and a family. And at times it’s still very attractive…. And I remember two different people in completely different circumstances, they told me that I would make a wonderful father and they both said, ‘You know, a father father, a regular father.’"

(Zind) O’Leary and Davignon don’t think opening the priesthood to married men will necessarily increase their ranks. And O’Leary says the bible specifically calls men, not women to the priesthood. He says he’s wary of any changes simply designed to draw more people to be priests.

The church has looked for other ways to make up for the priest shortage. Lay people have assumed more responsibilities in Catholic schools and parishes. The church has also revived the use of deacons. There are now 40 deacons in Vermont. These married men can perform many of the duties of priests except Mass and confession. Those responsibilities will continue to rest with Vermont’s active priests and the increasing number of retired pastors like the Reverend Davignon, who can be coaxed back into duty:

(Davignon) "In my time, Edward F. Ryan was the bishop. One of the questions was in Latin in those days. ‘Do you promise me and my successors reverence and obedience?’ And the Latin response to that is ‘promito,’ I promise. I’m still promising, regardless of the time or the place or the age."

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Middlebury.

(Sound of organ.)

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