Where the pastor is a sister

Photo: Charles Lewis/Buffalo News

Technically, she’s a “pastoral administrator.” But her leadership role is essentially the same. From The Buffalo News: 


Members of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Lackawanna know exactly who’s in charge of their small parish. And the person’s name is not preceded by the title “Father.” A priest has not run this ethnically mixed church in the city’s gritty 1st Ward for more than five years.

Instead, the parish relies on Sister Barbara Riter. In Catholic parlance, she is a pastoral administrator – a non–priest who performs many of the functions of a resident pastor.

“She’s the go-to person for everything. She runs the show, and she runs it smoothly,” said parishioner Evelyn Roulhac.

St. Anthony Church provides a glimpse into how more area Catholic parishes will operate in the not-so-distant future.

Like the high altar and the pipe organ, the resident pastor could become a thing of the past for many of Western New York’s 630,000 Catholics.

Taking the priests’ place will be pastoral administrators, used sparingly until now, but soon to be a “diocesanwide experience,” according to a local Catholic prelate.

Even with nearly 100 fewer parishes than a decade ago, the diocese is running out of priests.

More than half of its 180 active priests will reach retirement age by 2023, and only 20 men are expected to be ordained over the same span.

Thus, within a decade, the diocese will have 95 to 120 priests – well short of what is needed to staff the current 164 parishes.

The clergy shortage is forcing congregants to rethink the “priest-centric” way their parishes historically have operated, with area churches facing the possibility that a priest sometimes may not be available to celebrate a scheduled weekend Mass.

In those instances, pastoral administrators would lead something known as a “Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest” – not a Mass, but a service that would fulfill a Catholic’s weekend Mass obligation.

Catholic traditionalists worry that the use of pastoral administrators will diminish the uniqueness of the priesthood or open the door to the ordination of women, changing the character of the church.

But diocesan officials emphasize that only priests will consecrate the Eucharist, hear confessions and celebrate Masses.

And they hope the addition of more pastoral administrators will make priests more available to parishioners for spiritual and theological matters.

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