CatholicView is pleased to have Father William J. Connor, pastor of St. Gerard Majella Catholic Church in Los Angeles, California, speaking on the issue "How Is The Church Coping with its Lack of Priests". Father Connor is a Roman Catholic priest who attended St. John’s College and St. John’s School of Theology in Camarillo, California, obtaining a B.A. in Philosophy, a S.T.B. in Theology, and a M.A. in religion. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1966.  He has been a pastor at St. Gerard Majella Church since 1985.


Fr William Connor

Fr William J. Connor


There is a critical issue regarding the number of young people entering our seminaries today.  Those enrolling have dangerously dwindled and projected numbers show that the total of newly ordained priests coming out of our seminaries are the lowest in history.  Some Church officials foresee that we will have one third fewer priests in the years to come and there will be no replacements for those priests who are retiring or leaving for various reasons.  The implications of this shortage is beginning to be felt across the nation and in some areas priests are being called to serve two parishes.  Because of the diminishing number, this is forcing leadership to the unfortunate realization that while our communities are called to keep the Lord’s Day holy, more and more people will not be able to do so because of the scarcity of priests.


CatholicView: Fr William, do you feel that the shortage of priests is a major concern and a reality for Catholic leaders and Catholics today?

St. Gerard Majella Church


Fr William: I certainly do.  It is only in the last four or five years that we have been facing the crisis here in Los Angeles. We realize that just simply saying married priests is the answer is not going to solve the problem now or in the immediate future.  Perhaps ten or twenty years down the road we will have married priests, but that’s not going to solve the problem right now so we are getting more and more lay people involved on a professional basis, and they are undergoing professional training to help pastors in parishes today.

For example, here at St. Gerard Majella Parish in the Westside of Los Angeles, I have a business manager who attended a two year course at Loyola Marymount University where he learned how to be business manager of our Parish.  My first few years here at St. Gerard Majella Parish I spent a good 90% of my time doing what the business manager now does.  The first thing I did when I arrived was getting a new roof on the church.  I was spending all my time looking for roofers and trying to get contracts and bids, etc.  The business manager handles those things for me now so that I can devote my time being a pastor. His is a paid position and he does an excellent job for us.

We are trying to get more and more lay people involved in doing things.   There are volunteer positions that lay people can do.  For example, I spend a lot of time on marriage cases, trying to help people get their first marriages annulled.   Certainly we can train lay people to do these marriage cases.  That would certainly help a pastor who is very busy in this priest shortage crisis.  I also spend a lot of my time doing marriage preparation. Couples wanting to get married.   Married people can be trained to help do this preparation.  We are taking a look and are planning how to get more lay people involved in helping us, not only at a parish level, but on other levels.  These are some of the things that we looking into during this shortage.

We may see the day here in Los Angeles as it is already seen in the East and the Midwest, and even in the State of Washington north of us, where parishes are being combined.  We do have a couple of parishes here in LA South Central LA that are joined. Two or three parishes have been combined to one.  We have two instances in South Central Los Angeles where two priests serve two to three parishes.  So it is very important that we get more and more lay people involved.  The lay people need to realize that we priests are working to maximum capacity.

One of the pastors here on the Westside lost his Associate Pastor.   He is all alone now and overtaxed and he mentioned this to his people. Instead of saying, "well, Father, we could help you", their response was "Well gee, you are going to have to work harder, Father and do more work."

Publisher Kathy Bernard with
Fr William

I know my Associate Pastor was on vacation visiting his family in Austria for four weeks and I was here alone during that time and I am telling you it was stressful.  On Saturday, for example , I would have four Masses, on Sundays I would have three Masses and one Sunday, I had four when he was away.  That Monday I had three Masses.  I had the morning Mass at 8AM, I had a nursing home Mass, and I had a funeral Mass.  And after Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday morning I collapsed at the altar at 8AM Mass.

One thing we need to do here at St. Gerard this coming year of 2000 is take a new look at our weekend Mass schedule.  Now beginning the first Saturday in December, we are not going to have a Saturday Mass at 8AM.  We’ll have daily Mass 8AM Monday through Friday inclusive, but with all the Quinceaneras, weddings, funerals, and the vigil Masses, we can’t continue to have a Saturday Mass here at 8AM.  It is fine when my Associate and I are here but even then we are overtaxed and overstressed because our Priest in Residence cannot do daily Mass and he is not involved in parish ministry.  He does one mass for me on Saturday, and he will do two masses on Sunday but I can’t rely on him to do daily Mass, I can’t rely on him to do weddings, quinceaneras and funerals so we are maxed out.  So we are trying not to have an 8AM Mass. This seems to be the trend in many parishes.

And then we take a look at our Sunday Mass schedule.  Right now, we have nine Masses here on the weekend.  Well, with the priest in residence we are able to do it.  Saturday inclusive. Our Spanish Masses are pretty much full and some of them are overcrowded.  People are standing around the walls, maybe one of the Masses will just be full so I don’t plan to do away with any Spanish Masses.  We have four Masses in Spanish and five Masses in English on the weekends.  But we going to need to maybe combine a couple of our English Masses because they are only half full.   The Cardinal has told us that where Masses are only half full we should combine them and right now we need to talk to the people about possibly bringing together the 7:30AM and the 9AM Masses which are only half full and possibly have a Mass at 8AM.   What we must do is talk to the people and help them make the decision concerning the most convenient time we would have the first English Mass on Sunday; 7:30 AM or 8AM.

When I came here to this parish fifteen years ago in January, it was 50% Latino.  Well, the parish now is 70% Latino, and I have added three Spanish Masses.   We have a Mass at 1:30PM, and at 7PM on Sundays with an additional Mass on Holy Days in Spanish at 7:30PM.  When I came here I didn’t do any Spanish speaking ministry.  I was told not to worry about it since I had a full time Spanish speaking priest from Spain but then he was moved after my first seven years here and at that point I realized I would have to learn Spanish.  I do everything in Spanish now.  The only thing I don’t really feel comfortable doing is confessions because of the nuances, the variety of Spanish accents, the old people not speaking as clearly and distinctly, and the people from other countries who have different accents.  The Colombians are probably the clearest and easiest to be understood for me.

I find that my Spanish is still limited but people tell me that they understand me, I give good short homilies in Spanish and they are perfectly clear.   So, you know, I do weddings and baptisms, and quinceaneras, and funerals and what have you in Spanish now and that is important.  Because the parish has gone to 70% Latino, I have added, in additon to more Spanish Masses, a lot of Spanish activities, a lot of Spanish speaking programs while I still continue for the other 30% who are English speaking.  Some of our Latino people don’t speak any Spanish. They speak only English.  We also have a good many who are bilingual and a good number who speak only Spanish. Though some are fluent in English they are much more comfortable in Spanish.   They prefer to pray in Spanish as we do in English.

CatholicView: In your opinion, to what do you attribute this decline in gaining new priests today?

Fr Connor: Well, I attribute it to the age in which we live.  We live in a very materialistic consumer society.  Sad to say a good majority of Catholics today are what we call nominal Catholics. They are not practical or practicing Catholics.  Polls have been done on a number of Catholics who actually practice their religion today and I think the most liberal estimate would be 27 to 30 percent of Catholics go to Mass on Sunday.  Among those numbers are included people who only go once or twice a month.  Not just people who go every Sunday So, there has been a decline in the practice of the faith and the understanding and appreciation of the faith.

Life is very good for people today.  I notice that among our Spanish speaking, particularly our newly arrived people, there is a much stronger practice of the faith because their lives are hard.  Their lives are difficult.  They don’t have it easy as the rest of us who have made it.  You have to make sacrifices to be priests, to be religious brothers and sisters and many are not willing to make that sacrifice.

CatholicView: Do you feel there are specific issues that deter our youth today from choosing the priesthood as a vocation?

Fr Connor: It is the comfortable lives that they have, and the materialism and consumerism with which they are growing up. They’re growing up without Catholic convictions and the values.  Sad to say, the majority of the children in our schools do not go to Mass on Sunday.  Their parents don’t go.   The school can only build on the foundation that the home lays.  And the home is not laying a foundation upon which the parish school can build.  The parents are indifferent to religion and the Church. And it is very sad.

CatholicView: There seems to be fewer altar servers at Mass. Do you feel that because parents are not encouraging their sons while they are young to participate at the altar, this is one of the reasons a child is not inclined or does not even think to consider the priesthood as a vocation?

Fr Connor: You are absolutely right.  The children who become altar servers whether they are boys or girls come because the parents themselves are involved in the life of the parish.  Their parents come to Mass and Holy Communion. They’re the parents that see to it that their children who learn to serve at the altar are here for their serving appointment.  Some children who at first take an interest in becoming altar servers and are trained simply do not show up for their serving appointments after the novelty has worn off because their parents don’t take any interest or concern.  The parents don’t go to Mass or do not encourage their children to attend or fulfill their obligations.

CatholicView: Some Catholic Christians think that a spiritual calling to the priesthood by God could not easily be ignored. Has this changed?

Fr Connor: Well today it is being ignored I think by young people because of the comfortable, materialistic consumer style lives that they have.  By the fact that they are not being raised to understand and to appreciate the faith.   Perhaps not recognizing the calling, just not hearing it, or not paying attention to it. Ignoring it.  Probably half the people being ordained to the priesthood today are what we call late vocations.  They have been in other careers, professions or businesses, and some of them will say that early in life they felt an attraction or an inclination to the priesthood or religious life but they ignored it. Once into their profession or their business, the call came back and they decided they really couldn’t get away from it, there was something missing in their lives that only a religious vocation or priestly vocation would satisfy.  Late Vocation ordained priests or religious brothers and sisters will tell you that satisfaction is now there in their lives.  This was lacking when they were in the business world or other professions.

I was looking at an article in Parade Magazine, one of the sections of the LA Times newspaper last Sunday about people who came to religious vocations in their late thirties, forties and fifties and among them they included one man who was the vice president in entertainment and was making a fabulous salary. He was fifty three years old and he is now at our major seminary in the hopes to be ordained a priest for the Archdiocese in a few years.  He mentioned the fact that even though he made lots of money, had a very comfortable life that there was something missing in his life that he had ignored.  He had thought about the priesthood early in life but later found he couldn’t resist it any longer.  I think there are a good number who do block this call out and ignore it. We are always free to say yes or no to God.  We are free to say yes or no to His Grace.  We are always free to say yes or no to God’s Salvation.

CatholicView: The Pope has made it clear that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. Should this shortage of  priests become a stark reality, do you think this stance would change?

Fr William: The Pope has said that professionally I am not allowed to remark on this but I am on an ecumenical commission here in the archdiocese that includes Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans and I suppose I can give you their attitude or view on this.   I really can’t give you mine professionally.  Their attitude is that it is not your gender that makes one an apt candidate for Holy orders rather, it is your preparation, your intelligence, your compassion, your concern for people and your baptism that makes you an apt candidate for Holy Orders; Bishop, Priest or Deacon.  That’s pretty much their position and that Christ doesn’t, as a human being, represent men only.  He represents men and women both and I know that an argument from our side though is that we look upon the Church as the spouse of Christ, the wife of Christ and Christ would be the husband or father of the Church and in this line of reasoning then, if the Church is looked upon as a feminine dimension as the spouse of Christ then the representative of Christ the Bishop or Priest should be male. That’s the Catholic position. But this is not the way my friends on the ecumenical commission see it.

CatholicView: Is the lack of faith in today’s society a contributory factor to the shortage of priests?

Fr William: Yes, definitely. It goes right along with consumerism and materialism.  There seems to be a real lack of faith  and indifference to faith and religion.

CatholicView: Is it viable to say we are importing priests from other countries because of the diminishing amount of priests here in America?

Fr William: I don’t think this is the answer.  I know that amongst dioceses, many priests from Africa and Poland have been imported but it is very difficult because of culture rating in our society and our American way of life.   With no disparaging of the Irish Clergy, I am half Irish descent myself, some of these priests never really became Americans.  It was as if they had never left Ireland.  We need American priests in this country to know where our people are and can talk to them in our own language.  We, in recent years, have gotten some very fine young Irish priests from Ireland.  I am very impressed when the young Irish priests have had our University education. They are very fine.  They are very good.   But I don’t think importing priests is the answer.  We have got to develop our own American priests and as I said earlier we need to find ways of getting lay people more involved in help our priests.

CatholicView: How can the laity help with the shortage of priests?

Fr William: What I said earlier.  Having a business manager to help with parish preparations, people helping with marriage cases, doing more with religious education, we have a religious education director here, dealing with religious education programs.  This month, she is going to begin the Little Rock, Arkansas Bible Studies here.   She has young adult members in our parish who are prepared to work with her in doing bible studies.  So, there are ways that she has taken such as having volunteers to help her.  For example, we had some wonderful volunteers here at the parish working on our stewardship program during the month of October last year..   There are some really good people who are helping in every way they can.

We are also fortunate to have a deacon who is instrumental in giving homilies, doing marriages and baptisms, and quinceaneras, for example.  He comes well prepared after studying for five years at a Catholic Seminary.  He is bilingual and can do both Spanish as well as English Masses.  This has been a tremendous help in our parish and he is well received by both the English and Spanish Parishioners.  His duties frees the priests to address the other numerous issues that must be attended to.   Having more deacons in various Churches throughout the country could be most beneficial during this priest crisis.  The only thing that deacons cannot do is the Consecration of Holy Communion and the Rite of Confession.

CatholicView: In your estimation, when did the scarcity of priests begin to be apparent?

Fr William: Well, in this diocese I think probably in the last five to ten years we began to notice the shortage and began to do something about it.  It is only in the last four or five years that we are really working on it.  It began around 1966 or 1968 but I wouldn’t attribute this to the Second Vatican II,  I would simply attribute it to the world at large and the way the world is going with the increase in consumerism and secularism.

CatholicView: The critical issue for most Catholics in some areas of our country seems to be "what will be the impact on the celebration of the Eucharist" should they face a priestless Mass. What do you think about this?

Fr Connor: There are already liturgical guidelines for a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest. And that celebration would usually be a Holy Communion service and a deacon or a religious brother or sister or lay man or lay woman would conduct the service of the word, which would be the first part of the Eucharist Mass. They would be licensed by the Bishop to do the homily, followed immediately by the Lord’s Prayer,  then proceed to the reserved Blessed Sacrament to give Holy Communion to the people present.  So there wouldn’t be a Eucharist of making present a celebration of the Lord’s Death and Resurrection which is what Holy Mass does as a Perfect Sacrifice of Praise and Thanksgiving. The priest who had come last at Mass would consecrate enough altar bread so the people could go to Holy Communion until the priest came again, perhaps on a monthly basis to celebrate Mass.  I don’t think this is the answer because we are going to become a Church lacking the Eucharist, Holy Mass.  What makes us Catholic is the fact that we have the Eucharist and the Celebration of the other Sacraments of the Church so we would become a Church of the Word only without the priests. We will become a Protestant church if we don’t have the Sacraments.  For Catholics it is the Mass that matters.  When my British ancestors were persecuting my Irish ancestors, those Irish Catholics died for the Mass.   They went to Prison and died for the Mass.

CatholicView: Married Episcopalian priests are being accepted in the Roman Catholic Church as Clergy.  What is your view on this, since the strict rule of celibacy applies to the Catholic priest?

Fr Connor: Well, they are being accepted and they are being ordained as Catholic Priests either conditionally or absolutely.  I think they are being accepted not because of the priest shortage but because they are allowed to continue in the Catholic Church either in an Anglican usage or an Anglican Rite and some are being ordained as married priests for the Latin Rite.  The rule of celibacy still applies in the Latin Rite if the ordained Episcopal priest is received or an ordained Lutheran minister is received. If the wife later dies they are not allowed to remarry similar to the rule in the Eastern Orthodox Churches where a priest is sometimes already married before he is ordained. He is not allowed to marry again if his wife dies, or if he hasn’t married before admission he is not allowed to marry after admission. The law of strict celibacy still applies in the Western Church. With the shortage of priests, I think one partial answer would be to allow priests who have already left the priesthood to marry to come back and to function as worker priests.  It certainly could help on weekends in parishes so that people would not be denied the celebration of the Eucharist in Holy Mass.  I really think it is anti-Catholic to deny people the Eucharist based on a Church rule or a Church law on the discipline of celibacy.  I really think that a alongside celibate priests we do need to have married priests.  We are going to wind up having very, very few priests or no priests eventually if we don’t have married men ordained to the priesthood.  So I think there is room in the Church for both.  Celibate priests and married priests.  I believe that the Church does have the right to make that decision, but I also, at the same time, believe that there are men called to the priesthood who are not called to celibacy.  That is my own humble opinion and I don’t see any reason why they could not be ordained to the priesthood.   I think probably in ten to twenty years that will be the situation.  I think the next Pope will probably allow married priests on a limited basis.  I think in Latin America the bishops have asked for this, and I think in Africa the bishops have asked for this so it will come but it will be in that time span and it will be slow. We’ll begin with a few.

CatholicView: Fr William, why be a priest?

Fr William: (laughing) Well, I really was convinced that this was my calling: That God called me to be a priest.  I can’t think of anything better or more important that I can do for people than minister to them as a priest.  Preaching God’s word, celebrating the Sacraments, listening to them, enabling them and supporting them in lay ministry.  To me, this is the most important thing I can be and I can do is be a priest.  In high school I once thought about being a doctor like my grandfather, I even thought about being a high school teacher or a college professor, but to me being a priest was even better and more important and more satisfying.

CatholicView: In summary, what do you think would attract our youth to the priesthood?


Fr William: I have talked to high school kids.  Some will say to me, "I really would like to be a priest but I want to be a husband and a father too." I don’t think that one would necessarily exclude the other.  So somewhere down the road I think if we are going to attract young men to the priesthood we are going to have to have married priests.  I really don’t know what to do about the materialism and the secularism that we experience so strongly in the world and what to do to overcome that.  In our school, for example, I have sat with our principal and our junior high religion coordinator and we talked about trying to convert our junior high kids to Christ Jesus as their Lord and Savior, that He should be the most important person in their lives and the Eucharist should really be the most important way we can commute with our Lord, and to try and make Catholic Christians out of them.  To try to convert them even though there isn’t a backup from the families, from the home.

CatholicView: Thank you for being so generous with your time.  I am sure our readers will enjoy having many of their questions and concerns answered clearly and precisely and will benefit from the knowledge you have shared with CatholicView.  I hope at some future date we may do this again.

Fr Connor: Thank you and I very much appreciate you as a member of this parish and I am very glad you are a Eucharist Minister here at St Gerard Majella Catholic Church.


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