Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne stepped onto the altar of St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington this month to announce what, at first glance, appeared to be good news.
“We have arrived at a place where things can return to normal,” he said.
Coyne was speaking of the state lifting Covid-19 restrictions, allowing Vermont’s largest religious denomination to reopen its 68 parishes at full pre-pandemic capacity. But he was saying so at an annual clergy ordination that, as in too many past years, was welcoming just one new priest.
When Louis deGoesbriand became the first bishop of the Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese upon its founding in 1853, he led a clergy of 52. That figure rose over time to 274 in 1975, but has dropped over the past half-century to 181 in 1985, 151 in 1995, 83 in 2005, and a historic low of 50 today.
The diocese has circumvented the decline by asking parishes to consolidate or close (from 130 in 2001 to 68 today), adjust Mass schedules, share pastors, or welcome priests from other countries.
The latter option is facing its own challenges. The diocese says changes in U.S. immigration procedures will force five international priests — three from the Philippines and one each from India and Nigeria — to depart this month, as their religious worker visas will expire before they can apply for permanent residency.
Add retirements and transfers and the diocese will lose eight priests July 1.
“The immigration complication was completely unexpected,” Coyne said in a statement. “Even though these priests want to stay with their parishes here in Vermont, they must go home now so that they can return to Vermont in 12 months.”
As a result, the diocese is reshuffling 15 priests among different parishes and leaving churches without clergy in Grand Isle, Proctor Putney, Troy, and West Rutland.
“I’ve tried to do everything I can to make sure that as many parishes and churches will continue to have pastors,” Coyne said. “I know it will be difficult for a while for those ‘priest-less’ parishes, but we will try and provide as much coverage as possible for Sunday Mass and the sacraments.”
The clergy shortage isn’t unique to the state; it’s plaguing Catholic churches throughout New England and the nation. Over the past 50 years, U.S. priest numbers have dropped almost 40 percent, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
In Vermont, the diocese has lost 101 priests to death and 20 more to departures or removal in the past 30 years. In the same time period, it has ordained 34 priests and welcomed four from other orders.
The trend is expected to get worse: About 20 percent of the state’s current priests are age 60 or older, while fewer than 10 percent are 35 or younger.
Many Vermont Catholics — whose own numbers have dropped from 142,000 in 1990 to 112,000 today — have suggested the church ordain women and married men, only to be told the Vatican doesn’t approve.
Instead, the diocese increasingly is turning to online options and its lay members.
“We need to be open to new ideas, such as trained parish administrators who can manage the daily operations of the parish with visiting clergy to perform the celebration of the liturgy and sacraments,” Monsignor John McDermott, the bishop’s assistant, has told Vermont Catholic magazine. “We will need the involvement and support of the lay community like never before.”