As of June 17, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City's closing or reassigning seven churches in rural Oklahoma towns became effective. Churches in Grandfield, Maud and Rush Springs are shutting their doors, while churches in McLoud, Walters and Frederick are being reassigned as missions. St. Joseph Church in Wewoka is being designated a chapel.
Archbishop Eusebius Beltran wrote letters to the parishioners in the affected areas, explaining the reasons for the changes. Beltran said a shortage of priests and the reassignment of the monks at St. Gregory's Abbey in Shawnee made the closures necessary.
Oklahoma City joins a long list of archdioceses nationwide that are being forced to close, reassign or consolidate parishes. States in the northeast have been particularly hard-pressed due to changing demographics, lack of finances and the priest shortage in what were once old-guard Catholic cities: Boston; and Albany, Syracuse and Buffalo, N.Y. Cleveland faces the gravest crisis with the archdiocese threatening to close or consolidate 48 churches.
The Rev. Edward Weisenburger of The Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and a spokesman for the Oklahoma City archdiocese said the closings are a reflection of the changing populations of rural areas.
"The Catholic Church follows the population," Weisenburger said. "Places like Edmond are exploding right now. There are 4,000 or 4,500 people in one parish. This isn't just a Catholic issue; other churches are closing as well."
However, unlike Catholics, Protestants do not share an obligation to take the sacraments, especially the Eucharist (Communion) weekly. Catholic teaching has always tended to be stricter about attendance at Mass and taking the Eucharist than that of Protestants. For practicing Catholics in rural areas, this obligation creates difficulties " most notably the length of a morning commute to attend Mass, something that is far more painful as gas approaches $4 per gallon.
Weisenburger said the archdiocese is aware of these issues and believes the distance will not be greatly increased for the affected parishes.
"No one will have to drive farther, I don't think," he said. "People drive 10 to 15 miles for school, movies, grocery store, etc. I don't see this as a drawback. It does pain me to see these communities getting smaller, and it's no surprise that the church gets smaller, as well. In fact, a consolidation creates an opportunity for more people to get together and have a fuller experience of parish life."
Some Oklahoma Catholics aren't convinced that the church is at a point where it must close parishes. Many of the closings are related to the priest shortage, and Oklahomans who are members of Call to Action and Corpus " two national networks of Catholic activists in favor of an inclusive priesthood " believe it is time for the Catholic Church to consider other options: ordaining women and non-celibate married men.
'WHY NOT WOMEN?'
The Rev. David Iven was ordained in 1959. He served in several Oklahoma churches, including St. Charles Borromeo in Oklahoma City. After an assignment in Guatemala in the mid-Seventies, Iven returned to Oklahoma and sat down with his bishop to discuss marriage.
"It was time to do what I'd been thinking about for years," Iven said. "I wanted to marry, to have a family and to remain a priest. That option wasn't open to me, so I resigned the priesthood in 1976."
Iven and his wife are active at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Muskogee. They had one daughter in 1978 and adopted another in 1980. He and his wife, who is bilingual, work with the church's Hispanic ministry.
"The irony is that I am no longer a priest, but my wife and I have been the kind of team that would be helpful in parish ministry," Iven said.
He said that at 75 he is too old to be an activist, although he is a member of Corpus, but he is still trying to work for change informally. "I'm a burned-up firecracker at this point," he said, "but I'll still talk about this issue with anyone who cares to have the conversation."
CALL TO ACTION
D'Esta Verdicchio and her husband are practicing Catholics in Oklahoma City. She is a member of Call to Action, and she, too, is in favor of married priests and women priests.
"The priest shortage is causing people to miss out on participating in the church or the community by not having access to the sacraments," Verdicchio said. "We're not locked into a celibate priesthood. The priesthood was a married priesthood until the 12th century; it could change back again."
Verdicchio said she doesn't see much hope for ordained women anytime soon, but another nationwide network of activists is working to change that.
Alongside the notices of parish closings, the Vatican released a statement on May 30 that said anyone participating in ordination services for women priests would be automatically excommunicated. Sister Christine Schenk, a trustee and spokeswoman for FutureChurch, a national coalition of Catholics supportive of ordination of women and married people, said it is past time for the Catholic Church to consider the ordination of women so that all Catholics could have access to the sacraments.
"The Vatican released their statement in May in response to a bishop in good standing ordaining women," Schenk said. "This is not an infallible doctrine, though. It can be changed. The church already has 200 married converts who are priests, so why not women?"
'DISCIPLINE' AND 'DOCTRINE'
Christopher Malloy, associate professor of theology at the University of Dallas, a private, Catholic university, said that there will be no women priests because male-only priesthood is an infallible doctrine. Malloy is also a proponent of a celibate priesthood, but said celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine.
"A discipline can be changed," he said, "but it would require that the pope convene an ecumenical council. I don't think the current priest shortage mandates a change in the discipline, though. There is a short-term crunch which we will see alleviated by priests from Africa and Asia, just as the short-term crunch in the 18th century was alleviated by priests from Ireland and France."
Malloy said there are good reasons for maintaining a celibate priesthood, especially the single-mindedness that comes from not having to worry about family, property, inheritance and day-to-day concerns of married people. "A priest who is celibate is totally devoted to the service of ministry," Malloy said, "and since the mediation of the priest is part of what brings salvation for Catholics, we are very dependent upon his purity."
According to Malloy, Pope John Paul II gets most of the credit for surges in new priests in Africa and Asia. "I think he inspired people with the love of God," Malloy said. "We are seeing young men, inspired by the vision of John Paul II, taking vows in other countries."
Schenk also cited the life and ministry of John Paul II as inspiration for FutureChurch. John Paul II was a great proponent of the changes brought by Vatican II, and it is this legacy of reform that FutureChurch preaches. Still, some argue that part of the battle is theological for a church whose new leader, Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledged its priest shortage along with the ongoing sex abuse scandal during a trip to America last April.
"The Catholic Theological Society already issued a statement on whether or not a male-only priesthood is infallible doctrine," she said. "They said that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cannot make a doctrine infallible. Only the pope can do that."
Schenk is not hopeful that she will see major changes in her lifetime, but she continues to work for an inclusive priesthood. In the meantime, Catholics are facing church closings all over the country, and parishioners like Verdicchio are concerned where the crisis is leading the church.
"The church is missing the boat on not having married priests or women priests," she said. "I'm afraid we're going to end up with some priest in Alaska or another remote area shipping Jesus out by the bucket because he can't get to all the people in his area." "Greg Horton