There no longer is a priest at Priest River.
When Roman Catholic priest Robert Bargin died of cancer in 1994, there was no one to replace him.
Even today, Bargin’s North Idaho parish relies on visiting Jesuits to say Mass.
In June, Idaho ordained its first new priest in three years - this in a state that historically has ordained two a year. The state’s 113 Catholic churches are served by 69 priests.
“We have predicted by the year 2005 that there will be 40,” said Doris Murphy, director of the Boise Diocese’s Vitality Project.
“And I would say that statistic is pretty much universal across the country.”
“No matter what happens, the reality is that we’ll have fewer men becoming priests, for the immediate future,” said Boise Diocese Bishop Tod Brown.
There are more Catholics in America now than ever before. Yet there are 20 percent fewer priests than in 1970. Church officials expect the shortage to get much worse over the next decade.
“We have older priests retiring, we have priests who die. Everywhere in the U.S., you have fewer and fewer priests to serve more and more Catholics,” said Sister Jane Kelly, who helps run the Priest River parish.
In 1970, there were 59,192 priests serving 48 million U.S. Catholics. Now there are 49,071 serving 60 million.
Perhaps more telling are the numbers of men enrolled in seminaries. In 1970, there were 28,906. Today there are 4,578.
In response, the church has redoubled efforts to recruit seminary students. More dramatically, lay people in the church are assuming roles traditionally taken on by priests.
The shortage also gives ammunition to Catholic reformers who argue the church should ordain women and married men. Thousands of priests have left the priesthood over the past two decades to marry.
“They (church leadership) have been burying their heads in the sand,” said Linda Pieczynski, board president of Call to Action, a Catholic reform group. “There’s a lot of people who don’t realize how close they are to having one priest or no priest at all.”
In Washington, the Spokane Diocese is holding fairly steady so far, said the Rev. John Steiner, vicar general. There are 46 priests for the 80 diocese churches with regular Sunday services. Spokane ordained no priests last year, but ordained two so far this year, as well as two in 1994.
“We seem break-even for the short term,” Steiner said.
Still, he acknowledged, “We are at the point where when a priest gets sick or goes on vacation, it gets really tight.”
Some priests have put off - or come out of - retirement.
In Idaho, the Rev. T.J. O’Donovan retired in 1987 after 38 years as a priest.
Yet O’Donovan still says weekly Mass at the Clark Fork church. He also frequently fills in at Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint churches.
“I’m still officially retired, but actually un-retired,” said O’Donovan. “With the shortage, there’s nobody to do it. North of Coeur d’Alene, there’s only about three of us.”
It’s also common, church officials say, for rural priests who ride a circuit of small churches each week to find their turf growing larger.
Some priests feel they simply can’t do much more.
The Rev. John Worster covers hundreds of miles a week, ministering to five small southeastern Idaho churches in five counties.
“I’m on my third Toyota 4-by-4,” he said.
On Thursdays, he holds a service in Malad City. Saturday afternoon he’s in Lava Hot Springs, then on to Soda Springs Saturday night.
On Sunday morning, he goes to Montpelier, then back to Soda Springs, and by afternoon he’s in Preston.
“We’re kind of maxed out,” he said. “I’m not sure how much more I could physically do.”
He sometimes feels he’s not enough. “People deserve a lot more than one man at a time can give,” he said.
Perhaps the most profound change caused by the shortage of priests, however, is that Catholic parishioners - who for centuries were told their place was in the pews - now help run their churches.
That role began in the 1960s, with Vatican Council II. The conference led to radical changes in the church, and created new roles for lay people. Especially for women, who previously served the church primarily as nuns.
“It (Vatican II) took them out of the pews and gave them responsibility,” said Sister Murphy. “And you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
Today, lay people serve as church administrators, teachers and counselors - duties largely done in the past by priests or nuns.
“Lay people before were seldom consulted or given responsibility or authority,” Murphy said. “Now they shape the future of the church.”
Church officials believe there are several reasons for the decline in the number of men becoming priests.
For one thing, priests must be celibate. The priesthood also is a time-consuming job, and not very lucrative.
“For the past 20 or 30 years there’s been an anti-institutional feeling in society,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in Washington, D.C.
“There seems to be a significant shying away from making commitments in our society. You have people waiting until their 30s or 40s to marry.”
At the same time, priests’ prestige has been eroded by revelations of sexual misconduct by some. An estimate by the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in 1994 pegged the number of such cases in recent years at about 400 nationwide.
“Who would let their son go with a priest now on vacation or to get ice cream?” said Pieczynski, of Call to Action. “That has done terrible things for morale. Terrible.”
In November, the National Convention of Catholic Bishops released its plan for dealing with the worsening priest shortage. It was titled “Future Full of Hope.” Catholic critics quickly labeled it “Whistling in the Dark.”
It is essentially a recruiting plan. It urges priests and parishes to find priesthood candidates, to speak to scouting groups and to put pamphlets in college counseling offices. It also urges parents to tell their children about priests in a positive way.
Meanwhile, lay people and “permanent deacons” - often married men - have taken over much of the role of running the church, including preaching. Permanent deacons - a position revived after centuries by Vatican II - can baptize, marry and perform funeral ceremonies.
“A lot of people who didn’t hear the call of celibacy said, ‘I can have a family and still serve God,”’ said Pieczynski.
“The church isn’t a building,” said Sister Murphy. “They (parishioners) are the church.”
Still, Roman Catholic priests are the only ones who can say Mass, hear confession, anoint the sick and consecrate the Eucharist, the bread and wine used for Holy Communion.
Many Catholics say the solution to the priest shortage is staring the church in the face: ordain women and married men.
But if change comes, many Catholics believe, the church would more likely allow married priests than women priests. The pope won’t discuss either issue.
“The feeling of the Holy Father is that ordination of women isn’t theologically possible,” said Sister Walsh, of the bishop’s conference. The argument, she said, is simple: Jesus ordained men, not women.
The objection to married priests, on the other hand, is largely a matter of church tradition. The church has an 800-year history of celibacy among priests.
But the shortage of priests, critics say, suggests that it’s time to change.
“Lots of married men and women are saying ‘I hear the call,’ and the Catholic Church is saying ‘I can’t accept your call,”’ said Pieczynski.
That’s not a criticism the church likes to hear. Pieczynski’s group, Call to Action, has been banned from meeting in some churches. And this spring, Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz threatened to excommunicate any church members who were part of Call to Action.
Interestingly, there already are married Roman Catholic priests. About 10 years ago, the church began accepting Anglican clergymen - married - who wished to convert to Catholicism and become priests.
“We have married priests. You just can’t be born Catholic and do it,” Pieczynski said.
Also, married priests were common in the early days of the church.
“We had married priests for 1,200 years,” said Sister Kelly. “What is God telling us?”
Without a radical shift in the trend of fewer priests, more churches will close and fewer Catholics will be able to go to weekly Mass, Pieczynski predicts.
“When the tradition conflicts with the faith,” she said, “which do you choose?”