BY MAUREEN MCGUINNESSCatholics who are parishioners at churches in the Albany Diocese without resident pastors or sacramental ministers are used to meeting different priests each weekend at Mass -- a situation that involves flexibility, patience and often some tricky scheduling.
Sister Johanne McCarthy, CSJ, parish life director at St. Patrick's in St. Johnsville, told The Evangelist that having visiting priests each weekend exposes her parishioners to different preaching styles.
"One of the pluses is that we've had wonderful priests that we wouldn't have had" otherwise, she said.
It's been two years since the parish has had a resident priest. "Sometimes we have a different priest each weekend," Sister Johanne noted; "sometimes we go for a spell with the same priest."
The parish has enjoyed having Rev. Peter Sullivan with them each weekend during Lent and are looking forward to celebrating Easter with him, Sister Johanne said.
Father Sullivan, a canon lawyer, also works for the diocesan Tribunal.
But Sister Johanne said the parishioners at St. Patrick's do miss having the connection to one priest: "So much evangelization happens when there is a resident priest."
Deacon Gary Picher, parish life director at St. Joseph's in Greenfield Center, agreed.
"The people have learned to accept it," he said. "But they'd prefer to have a sacramental minister."
In the two years that Deacon Picher has been the parish life director, approximately 15 priests have assisted with weekend Masses.
"People like stability and sameness," the deacon said. "It can be uncomfortable if you don't like change."
He said some ministry happens informally - for example, during the parish's social hour after Mass.
"A sacramental minister gets to be pastoral," Deacon Picher added. "I have to worry about the leaky roof or the payroll."
One thing the parishioners at St. Joseph's have learned is that all of the liturgical roles are important, not just the priest's.
"People have comments on every priest," Deacon Picher said. "We've been educating parishioners to understand that it's not the priest who makes the Mass.
The most important ministry is the ministry of those assembled. The celebrant plays a key role, but it's not the only role."
Parishes without a sacramental minister or pastor have to work with the Diocese to schedule priests for weekend Masses. Cheryl Elkins, administrative assistant for the Office of the Administrative Advocate for Priests, uses a computerized spreadsheet to coordinate requests for coverage with priests' schedules.
Mrs. Elkins said that retired priests provide most of the coverage to parishes without a sacramental minister.
"The hardest-working people on the planet are our retired priests," she said. "Everyone pitches in. It's amazing."
Parishes like St. Patrick's in St. Johnsville and St. Joseph's in Greenfield Center are always on Mrs. Elkins' spreadsheet: "They stay on my grid all of the time," she said.
Parishes without a sacramental minister pay the visiting priest $75 per Mass, plus mileage. Sister Johanne said that St. Patrick's spent $5,400 on visiting priests between July 1, 2008 and February 28, 2009. This figure does not include mileage.
The priests are reimbursed about 59 cents per mile, plus tolls.
Mrs. Elkins said that she will often calculate the mileage between the retired priest's residence and the parish he will provide coverage for. She then calls the parish so the priest can be reimbursed immediately.
"Most of these priests are retired and living on a fixed income, but some of them don't like to bring up money," she explained.
She advises the parishes to have a few simple things on hand for the visiting priest like cereal, juice and coffee, as well as a list of some inexpensive restaurants in the area. However, many visiting priests are welcomed into the homes of local Catholics.
"The people are so wonderful and friendly to the priests," Mrs. Elkins said. "They invite them to their homes for dinner."
Deacon Picher said this has been a benefit of having visiting priests. "I've made some good friends," he said of the visiting priests. "It's been great for my wife and I - we have them over for dinner."
In addition to finding priests to provide coverage at parishes without sacramental ministers, Mrs. Elkins also finds priests to fill in if a pastor gets sick or needs to go out of town.
"Sometimes I get a call at 3 [p.m.] on a Friday that a priest is sick and the parish needs coverage," Mrs. Elkins said.
The winter can be challenging, she said: Many retired priests head south for the season, so there are fewer available to provide coverage. Others aren't comfortable driving to some of the outlying areas in poor weather.
Finding coverage for funerals can be challenging, according to some parish life directors. Sister Johanne said that, during a recent week, her parish had four funerals. In those situations, she often calls neighboring parishes to see if a priest there can preside at the funeral Masses.
Funerals are often a time when parishioners especially miss having a resident priest, Sister Johanne said, since "there isn't the connection between the priest and the family."
Parishioners of St. Patrick's will soon have a priest: The parish will merge with Ss. Peter and Paul in Canajoharie and St. James in Fort Plain in July.
"The people were so happy to hear that through Called to be Church we were getting a priest," she said.
But the changes resulting from the Called to be Church pastoral planning process won't greatly change the need for priests to provide coverage. As Mrs. Elkins noted, "We didn't end up with a net surplus of priests."
She added that many of the future mergers won't greatly affect the number of Masses needing coverage: for example, if a mission church closes, often another Mass is added at the main parish.