Faced with a shortage of priests in one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, the Roman Catholic diocese of San Bernardino is becoming a national leader in using lay Catholics, nuns and permanent deacons to run parishes and meet the spiritual needs of its flock.
Though virtually every diocese in the country faces a serious shortage of priests that threatens to leave parishes without full-time clergy, the San Bernardino diocese, which covers San Bernardino and Riverside counties, is meeting the challenge on a scale not seen elsewhere.
A dozen of the diocese’s 110 parishes and missions -- some among its largest -- are being run by so-called parish coordinators, half of them lay persons. The rest are nuns and deacons.
By comparison, the diocese of Raleigh, N.C., which is known for pioneering the use of parish coordinators, has limited its effort to small congregations of 20 to 70 families.
All of its administrators are nuns, not lay Catholics.
San Bernardino’s effort to use lay Catholics to run parishes is being closely watched by bishops across the nation. If the approach succeeds here, San Bernardino’s plan could become a model for the wider church.
“That is the gift we have in our own poverty to give to the bigger church,” said Bishop Gerald R. Barnes. “We have had to do things quicker than others have.”
Not all parishioners have been happy with the changes. “Seemingly a lot of our folks are still looking at parishes as if we’re in the ‘60s or ‘70s,” said Douglas M. Rodrigues, director of the Office of Pastoral Planning. “But times have changed. The needs have changed.”
Lynn Zupan, 66, has been the full-time, lay parish administrator at San Gorgonio Catholic Church in Beaumont since last July.
Being asked to run a parish has been both exciting and humbling, she said.
Bishop Barnes, she said, told her: “I have been entrusted with these people. I now entrust you with the spiritual care of these people. Feed my lambs.”
“Oh my word! That just brought it home,” said Zupan, who has four grown daughters.
On Sundays she gets to church at 7 a.m. -- an hour before a fill-in priest celebrates the first of two Masses, one in English and another in Spanish. “I’m here a half-hour early greeting people,” Zupan said.
But Sunday duties only scratch the surface. During the week, Zupan, who holds a master’s degree in religious studies and had 12 years of experience in parish work in San Bernardino and San Francisco, supervises 11 volunteer and part-time staff members.
She had the last word in shaping the parish budget, runs the business office, and fields telephone calls from the parish’s 1,400 families. Planning weddings and funerals, caring for the sick and making sure parish buildings and grounds are maintained are all part of the job.
“There is no typical day,” she said. “I’ve made it clear if they want to come in with a compliment, which is always nice, or a complaint, or just to have a cup of coffee or a prayer, they can do that. Complaints are minimal.”
On weekends, Father Paul Boudreau shows up for confessions and to celebrate Mass. “He comes in at 2 p.m. Saturday. We talk about what’s happened, what decisions have to be made. I really value his advice,” Zupan said.
Many parishioners were apprehensive when told they were going to lose their priest, she said. But the approach seems to be working. “One lady said to me, ‘I don’t think we’ve lost anything.’ I think that’s fairly typical for the people of this parish,” Zupan said.
Tony B. Napoles, 72, was not one to eagerly accept the ministry of lay people like himself.
He recalled how offended he was when he first saw lay people help the priest distribute Holy Communion at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San Bernardino. He said six or seven other couples got together to protest.
“We were very disturbed,” he said. The priest sent them to a nun who explained the changes. “Before you knew it, we were becoming part of it!”
It wasn’t an easy adjustment, either, for Patricia Kielbaso, a 72-year-old widow who said she still misses not having a priest assigned full-time to her downtown San Bernardino parish, St. Bernardine Catholic Church.
“It was a shock” when the diocese announced 10 years ago their priest was leaving and that they wouldn’t have a full-time priest to replace him, she said. “I don’t know really how to express it. You just kept thinking this won’t happen.”
Though she has adjusted to the new reality, she said she still wishes there were a full-time priest. “I was raised where there was a priest in every parish. You do miss it,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see it [again].”
Sister Marita Beumer, who has run St. Bernardine’s parish for the last seven years, said parish coordinators hear relatively few complaints these days. Parishioners who remain unhappy probably left long ago, she said. Getting to this point, however, has been “a long, hard road.”
A growing reliance on non-priests is likely to be the trend for the foreseeable future. “It’s only going to increase,” said Bishop Barnes. “Even if we had 100 seminarians today, we would not have enough to meet the needs of our people.”
When the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s spoke of a “priesthood of all believers” and called for a more prominent role for the laity, some Catholics said lay people would revitalize the church by bringing new talent and dynamism to parish life.
Others, however, blamed the emphasis on lay persons -- or what they saw as a deemphasis on the ordained priesthood -- for the decline in the number of priests and men and women entering religious orders.
But whatever the theological arguments for lay involvement in the church, the facts in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have made lay ministry a practical necessity.
Nationally, there is one priest for every 1,257 Catholics, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. But in the San Bernardino diocese the ratio was one priest for every 3,853 Catholics at the end of 2001, and that figure included retired priests and those on leave.
The shortage of clergy here has been compounded by the Inland Empire’s population growth. As young working families with children buy homes, new parish churches have to be built where none existed. Old parishes in declining neighborhoods with dwindling membership face closure.
The way churches operate has to change too. When commuting workers leave home at 5 a.m. and don’t return until 8 p.m., it’s no longer always possible to hold parish meetings on weekday nights.
At the same time, the diocese said, it is seeing a growing gap between the rich and the poor, which complicates the church’s outreach efforts.
Conspicuous wealth and severe poverty exist within a few miles of each other.
The pressures of coping with more and more Catholics and cultural differences in a region with large numbers of immigrants takes a toll on the diocese’s 177 active priests.
“It eats me alive,” said Father Bob Miller, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral in San Bernardino.
He has to put extra effort into preparing Spanish-language sermons while still meeting all of the other demands faced by increasingly overworked priests.
Six years ago, he said, there were a hundred Spanish-speaking parishioners at the cathedral. Now there are 1,200 to 1,500.
In Rialto, St. Catherine of Siena Church was a middle-class, English-speaking parish in the 1980s. Since then, Kaiser Steel Co. and Norton Air Force Base have closed. Today, half the parishioners speak Spanish.
“The massive [home] building here and the new people that are coming in all present a challenge,” Miller said. “If a person has a sense of creativity, openness and collaboration, they’d find this a pretty exciting place to be.”
But with the number of priests continuing to lag growth, the use of lay people to run parishes is likely to continue to expand, here and elsewhere in the country.
“This is new to us,” said Zupan, the administrator at San Gorgonio, “but it’s not going to be new in a few years to many dioceses.”