When Bishop-designate David Zubik walked into a room filled with 240 Catholic priests from Pittsburgh last week, they rose to their feet and applauded.
Bishop Zubik, clad in black slacks and a sports shirt, cupped his hands like a megaphone and shouted, "All I have to say is, will you feel the same way six months from now?"
The priests burst into laughter. But it is a real question. They are delighted that another native son of Pittsburgh will take the bishop's seat in St. Paul Cathedral on Friday. But the diocese faces difficult choices and changes, as large classes of priests will soon retire with few to replace them.
Last year, the diocese projected that by the end of 2008, 65 priests would reach retirement age while just seven would be ordained. Fifty of 214 parishes now share priests with other parishes, and the first lay person has been assigned to oversee a parish that has no pastor.
Last week, Bishop Zubik made his second visit to this area since the July 18 announcement of his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI. The occasion was the triennial gathering of diocesan priests at Oglebay Park in Wheeling, W.Va., for continuing education, fellowship and recreation.
Now 58, he had long been part of that gathering as a priest and auxiliary bishop here. His last time was in 2001, two years before he became bishop of Green Bay, Wis. Last week, he blended seamlessly into the ranks of parish priests, taking an inconspicuous second-row seat for morning prayer. After lunch he stood with his arms on the shoulders of two priests, talking football.
Returning to Oglebay "has given me a grand opportunity to connect and reconnect with almost all of the priests," Bishop Zubik said.
One of his goals is to make sure they feel affirmed.
"I wonder at times if there is the kind of appreciation for the [priests] of Pittsburgh that there should be," he said. "This is a mighty, mighty, awesome group of priests. Their love for God and for the church, and all of the talent that they have to offer, bodes well for the church as we move into the future."
The future was the theme at Oglebay, as Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., and speakers from the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association spoke on "the priest as evangelist and the evangelizing parish."
The Rev. Frank DiSiano, a Paulist expert on evangelization, told the priests that parishes spend most of their time and money on ministry to committed Catholics, and very little reaching out to those who have fallen away or never believed. He urged them to build parish priorities around outreach, and said that mandate must come from the bishop.
Bishop Zubik said taking the faith beyond church walls will be the theme of his installation homily.
"We have to begin to show people that we really are excited about our faith," he said. "Imagine what would happen if we really took that seriously -- if we were able to grasp the closeness of God in our lives and let that take root in our words and deeds. We would go a long way toward helping God build a better world."
That concern for evangelization is on target, said the Rev. Frank Almade, administrator of three parishes in Sharpsburg.
"This isn't just about the declining number of priests, it's fundamentally about the declining number of people," he said. "We have hard challenges ahead with evangelization and mission."
Because Bishop Zubik spent 16 years in diocesan administration here, "there will be almost no learning curve," said the Rev. Charles Bober, pastor of St. Kilian in Mars. That's good, he said, because the issues are serious.
"Pittsburgh priests, because they have had good examples in the past and because of their own experience, know how to do good ministry," he said. "But the fact that there are fewer and fewer of us is frustrating. You can't do what you know you should do or want to do, because there is so much to be done.
"Bishop Zubik can't work miracles. To expect him to solve all of our problems is really very unrealistic. But I think he will go to the root of it. I think he will work very closely with the seminarians and in recruiting vocations. And I think he will do that almost immediately. We may not see the results in the first five or even 10 years of his work here, but the work he will do immediately will be seen eventually."
He has already made an appointment to meet with his vocation directors after his installation, said the Rev. Thomas Burke, co-director of vocations.
Bishop Zubik is optimistic.
"I really believe there is a resurgence of people who will answer the call to become priests," he said.
He has dealt with difficult times here before. In the early 1990s, then-Father Zubik had what many people considered the worst job in the diocese.
He was in charge of clergy personnel when scores of parishes were merged and closed in an effort to stave off the effects of the growing priest shortage. In fact, the reorganization kept priests in all the parishes here for 15 years longer than would otherwise have been the case. But pastors who had expected to retire in beloved parishes saw them closed, and they were sent to serve other parishioners enraged at their own losses. Virtually all complaints landed on Father Zubik's desk.
He looks back at the experience with gratitude.
"That was a very defining moment for me because it established a very strong bond with all the priests," he said. "I met with every single priest and had a chance to talk to them about their love for the church and the assignments that Bishop Wuerl was asking them to take on. I saw in every single person who came in a unique love for the church."
Now he is inheriting a new effort, called Envisioning Ministry. What it shares with the previous reorganization is the call for laity from neighboring parishes to meet and plan for their future. But while the focus 15 years ago was on the number of buildings they needed, now it is on finding ways to do better ministry with fewer priests.
Bishop Zubik calls the push for lay ministry "a response to the movement of the Holy Spirit."
Whether there are enough priests or not, he said, God calls lay people to be missionaries to their neighbors. It's a message he preaches as chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Laity.
"The involvement of lay people in the church is not window dressing," he said. "It's in the core of the baptismal call ... When people say that the only reason we are inviting lay people [into ministry] is because of the dwindling numbers of clergy, that's not the case.
"If you go back and read the Acts of the Apostles and look at the people involved in the growth of the church, they weren't just the apostles. It was the lay people as well. There are distinct roles for priests, deacons and bishops, and distinct roles that lay people have by way of baptism. We have to go arm in arm, joining our talents together in building the church."
He doesn't see this as a grim time, but rather a moment when the Holy Spirit is calling all Catholics to spread the gospel.
"I'm excited about the challenge, especially coming back to my home diocese," he said. "There's a healthy sense of anxiety, realizing that this is a bigger responsibility and I need to listen more carefully and pray harder and work more energetically.
"The most overwhelming aspect of it is trust, God's trust in me. It's a new chapter in the church in Pittsburgh. This is our moment in time to do the best in carrying on the work of Jesus."
Ann Rodgers can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1416.