Region copes with declining number of priests
By Christin Nance Lazerus email@example.com April 28, 2013 12:10AM
Rev. Richard Orlinski (center) gives communion to parishioners and students with the help of eucharistic minister Alberto Jimenez (far left) during a morning mass in the chapel at St. John Bosco in Hammond, Ind. Thursday April 18, 2013. Orlinski oversees St. John Bosco and St. Joseph Catholic churches in Hammond. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 29, 2013 6:50AM
Early in his career, the Rev. Rick Orlinski was one of three priests at Our Lady of Grace in Highland and spent two to three days each week ministering to the sick in their homes.
Now, there is one priest who serves the church while Orlinski juggles multiple parishes in Hammond — St. John Bosco and St. Joseph.
The United States is experiencing a decline in the number of Catholic priests — as fewer men enter the priesthood — despite a rise in those identifying as Catholic. The Diocese of Gary has coped with the priest shortage by allowing deacons or lay ministers to give communion to shut-ins.
“It’s more of a question to empower as many people as possible,” Orlinski said. “You rely on other people to help out.”
The not-for-profit Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reported that the number of Catholic priests in the United States dropped 33 percent from 1975 to 2012. There were 58,909 in 1975, compared to 38,964 in 2012. During that time, the number of self-identified Catholics rose 43 percent to 78.2 million.
The Diocese of Gary had 142 active and senior priests in 2006 compared to 134 in 2012.
Orlinski, who was ordained in 1973, said the priesthood used to be a profession placed on the same level as a doctor or lawyer.
“It doesn’t bring in as much money,” Orlinski said. “When I was growing up, we had religious nuns teaching and most promoted the priesthood as a vocation.”
Orlinski said parishes sharing a priest tend to be in northern Lake County, where population has dwindled in recent years as residents move south to the suburbs.
“I grew up in Griffith and St. Thomas More (in Munster) wasn’t even in existence. Now it’s one of the bigger parishes.”
He has to conduct four Masses between his churches on the weekends, but he said it doesn’t pose any problems.
“If you put both churches together, they’re not any bigger than one of the larger churches,” Orlinski said. “They’re only three miles apart. We have one deacon and he helps out in Masses at both places, but for normal Sunday Mass, it’s not necessary to have a deacon.”
Bishop Dale Melczek said the diocese has 11 seminarians with one on track to be ordained in the next year.
“They are of great quality and we have a great deal of hope for the future,” Melczek said.
Melczek said it is up to each diocese to decide how they will respond to fewer priests. While the Diocese of Lafayette has welcomed more foreign priests, Melczek said Gary’s priests decided to increase the number of deacons and lay ministers within the diocese.
“We do have fewer priests now than 10 and 20 years ago,” Melczek said. “But there is more vitality in our parishes than ever before.”
The number of deacons has increased by a significant margin — from 42 in 2006 to 63 in 2012. Melczek will ordain eight more deacons in June. In May, almost two dozen lay ministers will graduate.
Melczek pointed to the deacons and lay ministers — who must complete at least four years of coursework in theology, spirituality and pastoral formation — as helping to engage the lay faithful in all the church’s ministries.
“What strengthens our members is more opportunities for engagement in the church,” Melczek said. “Thanks to the leadership of our priests and those who collaborate we are motivating all of the faithful to use the variety of gifts God has given them through baptism and confirmation to share with others the love and compassion they personally experience.”
Melczek said the Second Vatican Council urged all those baptized to share their faith life with others. He said the opportunities for the laity include youth ministries, catechism, religious instruction, and aiding those going through financial or emotional hardships.
Former Hammond mayor Duane Dedelow Jr., who is executive director of Catholic Charities, decided to train as a lay minister, but it took him on a spiritual journey that led him to becoming a deacon. He was ordained in June 2011.
“I had no idea going into the lay minister training that I would ever be a deacon,” Dedelow said. “But it’s really something you grow into and are called into by the Holy Spirit and The Lord. It has certainly deepened my faith in Jesus Christ and the Trinity, and it has allowed me to use my God-given gifts to serve his people.”