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Catholic diocese deals with priest shortage

The La Crosse Catholic Diocese is addressing an ever-worsening shortage of priests by developing a strategic contingency plan.

The declining number of priests has long been an issue in the diocese, according to Ben Nguyen, chancellor and spokesman. In 1965, there were 310 priests, a number that had dropped to 103 by last year, Nguyen said. Projections for 25 years from now call for 82 active priests.

"We're having to make do with less," he said Thursday.

He admitted the 2006 figure actually totals between 130 and 140, adding the 20 international priests who are in the diocese plus all of the retired priests who've helped out. But these additional priests can't be counted on long-term, due to health, temporary stays or other reasons.

Meantime, the diocese has 165 parishes to cover, the chancellor said. Its geographical territory contains 15,000 square miles, extending from the Prairie du Chien area on the south to the Pierce County area on the north, as well as east from the Wisconsin-Minnesota border to beyond Wausau.

As part of the pastoral planning process, a committee was formed in late 2005 in the diocese to assess the situation, triggered by a report from the Center for Applied Research Apostolate, he said. They've met over the past year, gathering data, identifying resources and studying demographics. Among the considerations has been a rural population shift, a product of factors including the farm crisis, bringing increased attention to the I-90 and I-94 corridors.

The committee has examined changes in parish arrangements, Nguyen said. For example, one parish might have a large building not being used to capacity and a smaller congregation. Another parish may have the reverse: a large congregation and a smaller building. How to serve these better is being weighed, he said.

"We've been asked to do this in a way we don't have to close any parishes," he said about developing the contingency plan, indicating closings would only be a "last resort."

The committee issued its preliminary findings during a two-day session in November in Black River Falls, the chancellor said. Instead of closing parishes, linking them and assigning different levels of usage has been recommended. One parish could be administered from another, for instance, or different parishes could provide different services. The increased use of deacons and lay staff to relieve priests for other duties has been suggested, too.

The committee's report has gone to each deanery, where Nguyen expects it will be in consultation for "quite awhile," he said. There could be other contingencies in the offing, if projections about future priest numbers hold. The parish councils will have input, perhaps beginning by the end of spring. All suggestions will be "boiled down" in anticipation of a report to be "more firm" by early fall.

"This is just good fiscal management," he said of the entire review process.