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Catholic lay ministers: An alternative to a shortage of priests

Alexander Garoutte says he's grateful his parents were so supportive of the major he ended up choosing.

"It must be hard to send your child off to school so he can major in theology," he said. "You can't really be sure what that's going to look like after graduation."

Garoutte, a 21-year-old senior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, was raised Catholic. He attended public school but became involved in the Church as an altar server and later as an active member of the youth group. The more involved he got, the more he realized he wanted to "talk about God all the time."

But he knew the priesthood wasn't for him, as he preferred to keep his options open for marriage and a family. So he chose a degree in theology with aspirations of working in Church ministry — a growing trend among Catholics who seek a more prominent role in the Church when priesthood isn't an option. In the face of a priest shortage, the profession is proving vital for the Church.

Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles is one of 29 programs in the country that offer theological degrees with an emphasis in lay ministry, according to the Association of Graduate Programs in Ministry. LMU's program started with 30 students in 1995, says Michael Horan, a professor of theological studies at the university. This year, there are 100.

RELATED: Religion, politics and culture: Stories from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

As far as Garoutte's job prospects when he graduates, the demand for his future profession hasn't let up. A study released in 2011 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University estimates that the Church is adding about 790 new lay ministers to parish ministry staffs in the U.S. each year (you can see the full document below). The average parish needs about nine full-time ministerial staff, including a pastor and a deacon, according to Christopher Anderson, executive director of the National Association for Lay Ministry.

Allowing laity to have a more active role was first initiated by Vatican II in the 1960s and later solidified in 2005 with a pastoral letter from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled "Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord." The letter was considered a "sign of hope" by Horan in affirming how critical lay ministry is to the future of the Church.

"The U.S. bishops' statement spoke about the phenomenon of lay leaders and their influence in making parishes hum," said Horan. "It shows how lay leaders and ordained leaders could work together to understand their vocations."

It also provides guidelines for U.S. parishes to follow when hiring and supporting lay ministers as church staff. Roles the lay ministers take on include leading the youth ministry programs, directing the music ministry and even running an entire parish in the absence of a pastor.

Part of the growth in lay ministry is attributed to fewer priests available to serve U.S. parishes. As older priests near retirement, the number of men being ordained isn't keeping pace with needs for the estimated 110 million Catholics in the U.S. by 2050, according to the CARA study.

It also notes the current U.S. Catholic population of about 78 million is about 75 percent more than it was 40 years ago. However, it is served by the same number of parishes as there were in 1965. Although Mass attendance has declined since the 1950s, there hasn't been a recent decline or increase over the last decade. If attendance stays the same, demands on parishes and parish staff will only increase.

Lay people want a bigger role

The other reason for growth in lay ministry, says Anderson, is that lay people genuinely want a bigger role, especially those who saw Vatican II firsthand — the most significant overhaul of the Catholic Church in centuries.

That presents another challenge. The first round of lay ministers after Vatican II mostly included former seminarians or religious sisters with strong theological training. As they retire, those replacing them aren't coming from the seminary or sisterhood, says Anderson, which makes lay ministry programs at the graduate level crucial.

While the clergy's response to lay ministers has been very positive, Anderson says some reproach comes from liberal Catholic groups who feel lay ministry competes with their campaigns for married clergy or female priests.

"The strongest criticism we get is from the left because there is a commitment for any lay minister to work within Church structures as they are now, and while we want the Church to be all it can be, we're committed to those structures," said Anderson.

Neither Married Priests USA nor Roman Catholic Women Priests said they are against lay ministry, calling it a necessary vocation for Catholics to live out their baptismal call. However, both groups are doubtful an increase of lay ministers will alleviate the Church's priest shortage.

"There is such a crisis of leadership in the Church. The Church doesn't see the [priest shortage] problem, and they're doing nothing about it," said Archbishop Peter Paul Brennan of Married Priests USA, who became an ordained married priest by a Catholic church independent of the Vatican. "The Vatican thinks the Holy Spirit is going to create a miracle and give them an answer instead of them doing something."

If married clergy were allowed, Garoutte said he wouldn't hesitate entering the seminary. The reason he doesn't join groups that advocate for married clergy is because he feels his education may be the best tool for now.

"I've learned you need to get a Ph.D. in order for the Church to respect you, and then from that, you can use it as your platform," he said. "But if priests could be married, I would do it in a second."

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.

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