By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/7/2005 8:40:02 PM ET 2005-04-08T00:40:02

The church John Paul II built now faces big challenges in America and around the world.

First, there's a critical shortage of priests. As priests retire or die, they are not as easily replaced as in the past. In fact, nearly one quarter of Catholic churches worldwide do not have full-time priests — last year that included more than 3,000 in the U.S. alone.

“These are parishes which may not be able to celebrate the Eucharist every week, and that is an issue that is going to have to be addressed,” says Father Joseph Komonchak of Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Over the last four decades, the number of priests in the U.S. has declined steadily. One reason is the debate over whether priests should be permitted to marry — a question for the next pope that often comes up when recruiting new priests.

“Is God calling me to priesthood or is God calling me to married life? That's the greatest struggle that they have,” says Father Robert Panke, the chaplain at George Washington University.

A possible solution would be permitting women to become priests. But most Vatican experts agree that is not likely.

Another big challenge for the next pope: His style of leadership. Some within the church say the Vatican has not given local parishes enough independence.

“I think there is a widespread feeling that in the last 10 or 15 years, the authority has become increasingly top down,” says Father Komonchak.

That is often cited to explain why Rome responded so slowly to widespread sex scandals, and still tries to shut down debate over cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion.

Finally, the church faces new frontiers — rising populations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, declining church rolls in Europe, the challenges of poverty and disease, like AIDS, and changing demographics in the U.S.

“The growing community of Spanish speakers in many parts of the country, and trying to adapt parish life to that reality, that's been something of a difficulty,” says Father James McCann, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

They all are major issues for the church as it prepares to chart a new era.

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