BroomeFaithPD020

Bishop Robert Muench speaks to the congregation before offering a prayer of unity during the Celebration of Faith service for Mayor-Elect Sharon Weston Broome Sunday at the Star Hill Church.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

A dwindling pool of priests for a rising number of Catholics is forcing the Diocese of Baton Rouge to implement a widespread revamp that primarily involves closing and merging some churches and reducing the number of Masses for the faithful.

The Pastoral Planning Task Force, a 12-member committee commissioned to help the Diocese address issues related to the shortage of priests, has also suggested expanding support services for current priests — like assistance with weekend Masses and specialized training for lay people who can help supplement the duties expected of pastors.

The Diocese announced Monday it has been slowly revamping its parishes since March 2016.

"This has been emotional . But no one has been negative about it," said the Rev. Trey Nelson, chairman of the Task Force. "They know the situation and the reality."

It's a situation mirroring national trends. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, one in five U.S. Catholic parishes does not have a resident priest.

The Diocese announced in a news release Monday that its number of priests has dropped over the past 50 years from 146 to 100, while the number of church parishes has risen from 64 to 67.

In that same time period, the Diocese says, the Catholic population in the region has jumped from more than 172,000 people to 235,000. The number of Catholics per priest has nearly doubled from 1,180 to more than 2,300 people.

"We have this historic mindset that the priest is supposed to do everything, and we can't continue to go in that direction," Nelson said.

Nelson said Monday there is currently a class of 22 enrolled in seminary school and the Diocese is hopeful most of them will graduate and become priests.

Despite being one of their largest classes, Nelson said, there's no way of knowing how many of the 22 will take their orders.

And, he said, in the next three to five years 20 priests active now will be eligible for retirement.

"I don't know if things will turn around any time soon," Nelson said. "So we have to operate under the assumption it's not going to turn around — at least for several years."

On July 1, the parishes of St. Louis King of France and St. Thomas More in Baton Rouge became what is known as a "shared pastorate," being served by one pastor.

The two church parishes had been served by 3 priests.

A parochial vicar, or associate pastor, has also been assigned to serve in the two parishes.

The Task Force has also recommended that St. Louis of France Parish merge with St. Thomas More. This change, implemented because of the changing demographics and financial challenges for both parishes, will become effective no later than June 30, 2018.

The Shared Pastorate of the Parishes of St. Joseph in Grosse Tete, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Maringouin and St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Livonia will begin a collaborative schedule reducing weekend Masses from six to four. All three churches will retain the benefit of having two full-time priests, but the Task Force said it's probable the churches will be reduced to a one-priest configuration as well.

Masses will no longer be celebrated at St. Catherine Chapel in Fordoche.

A vacant priest slot for the shared pastorate that encompasses the parishes of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in White Castle, St. Joan Arc in Bayou Pigeon, and St. Catherine Chapel in Bayou Sorrel will go unfilled due to the lack of priests, the summary reports says.

And because all three churches have had low turnouts for Mass, starting the weekend of July 29 only one Mass will be held each weekend in White Castle and Bayou Pigeon. Weekend Mass will no longer take place at St. Catherine Chapel.

The Task Force has also asked that the Diocese begin discussions regarding a long-term plan for the three sites.

"Personally, it is my heartfelt belief that we are going where God is leading us to go," Nelson said in a prepared statement. "Our works have borne much fruit and will continue to do so. How can we be church with fewer priests and more Catholics? We must choose and strive to do it together.

"I have personally found every Catholic lay person to be open and confident that the Holy Spirit is guiding us into the future."

Click here or see below for a detailed account of the changes.

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.