Video: Future pope's challenges

By Anne Thompson Chief environmental correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/4/2005 7:45:46 PM ET 2005-04-04T23:45:46

At the North American College in Rome, 150 seminarians study together, many to become parish priests in the U.S.

But at St. Procop's in Cleveland and hundreds of other parishes nationwide, there is a different reality.

“Visitors will come and say, ‘Oh, don't you have a priest here?’  And I say, ‘Well, they have me,’” says Sister Annette Amendolia, who as parish life coordinator sets out communion, leads morning prayer and changes the church sign.

“I do just about everything that a pastor would do, except say Mass,” she says.

That's still a man's job — Father Greg Yanus'. But he's at St. Procop's just four times a week, because while the American Catholic population is growing, the number of priests is shrinking — falling some 26 percent since 1980.

Even so, Monsignor Kevin McCoy, who heads the seminary in Rome, says the church is steadfast in its opposition to ordaining women. Why not let women take that final step to become priests?

“It's just a part of our tradition and the teaching of the church that has been defined, that the role of the priest remains to the male,” he says.

And no one expects that to change with the new pope.

As the number of priests decreases, what increases is isolation. Some no longer live in a group, often living alone, as more and more priests must do what they call “circuit riding” — traveling from parish to parish to minister to the faithful.

Father Ross Schecterle, director of counseling at the North American College, helps seminarians deal with the pressures of isolation, celibacy and more work.

“They have to know themselves very well, as well as they can, so that as issues surface and arise, they can appropriately deal with them,” says Father Schecterle.

All of which leads some to wonder if American priests aren't becoming an endangered species.

Father Thomas Kunz, who’s bound for the Pittsburgh diocese, just laughs.

“It's something that I think a lot of people have concerns about at home, but the priesthood will always be with us,” he says.

At least as long as there are religious women and parishioners to help.

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