Diocese of Pittsburgh shuffles parish priests

Retirements spark mass movement

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Inside this week's Pittsburgh Catholic is a full page-and-a-half list of the largest number of priest transfers that the Diocese of Pittsburgh has seen since a sweeping reorganization more than 10 years ago.

The retirement of seven of 314 active diocesan priests set off a chain reaction, causing 20 priests to move and five to take charge of two parishes. Priests ordained as few as four years are being appointed pastors, sometimes of large parishes.

Priests ordained in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- which had by far the largest ordination classes in U.S. history -- are now in their 70s. The canonical retirement age is 75, though some retire at 70 for health reasons.

"We think this will be happening more in the future, because the largest classes in the diocese are reaching retirement age. This is something we need to expect," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.

The diocese has 314 active priests for 214 parishes. Not all priests work in parishes. Some serve in hospitals or other specialized ministries.

The Rev. Daniele Vallecorsa is being removed as part-time parochial vicar at St. Raphael in Morningside to become the first full-time chaplain to a growing Latino Catholic Community.

"There is a need for full-time ministry with that community," Lengwin said. "It is also our intention to prepare for this ministry in the future by having some of our younger priests, who will be pastors in the future, learn Spanish."

Two priests were ordained this year, and three are returning from studies in Rome. One is returning from sick leave -- but one is taking sick leave and another taking a sabbatical. And one priest is transferring to the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., which has 32 active diocesan priests for 35 parishes in an area 26 times the size of the Pittsburgh diocese.

"The bishop there asked that he be assigned to their diocese, which has a much greater problem than we have," Lengwin said.

All this takes place as parishes engage in "Envisioning Ministry" discussions about how they would manage if they lost one priest -- which would leave many parishes with no resident priest. Representatives of neighboring parishes are meeting in 56 clusters to consider such measures as coordinated Mass schedules, shared staff and shared sacramental preparation. Although that sounds like the reorganization process of 1992-1994, which closed 39 churches and merged 163 parishes into 56 new ones, it is not intended to produce mergers, Lengwin said.

"This has nothing to do with mergers. If that happens, it will have to come from a parish deciding that it is necessary for them to do it," he said.

But the retirements caused several cases where two parishes will be under the care of one pastor. Those include St. Thomas Aquinas in California and St. Joseph in Roscoe; St. Sylvester in Brentwood and St. Norbert in Overbrook; St. Mary Czestochowa and St. Pius V in McKeesport; St. Cecilia in Rochester and St. Felix in Freedom. On Mount Washington, St. Mary of the Mount will temporarily be under the oversight of the pastor of neighboring St. Justin, while the Rev. Louis Vallone is on sabbatical.

One of the biggest changes is in the length of time it takes for a newly ordained priest to become a pastor -- the person responsible for everything that happens in a parish. A priest ordained in 1965 could expect to wait 25 years to be placed in charge of a parish. More recently, the minimum training period was six years. Now any priest who has taken the diocesan pastor-training program is eligible.

The Rev. Robert Vular, 47, ordained four years ago yesterday, will become pastor of a large parish, St. Teresa of Avila. Currently a parochial vicar at Sacred Heart in Shadyside, he spent his first three years of priesthood at St. Teresa.

"There is certainly some fear of the unknown, but overall, I know the people and I know the parish," Vular said.

Before becoming a priest, Vular was eastern sales manager for an RV company. Because many of the newer priests have such a professional background, they bring skills to the pastorate that young priests of 25 years ago rarely possessed, Lengwin said.

Ann Rodgers can be reached at arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416


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