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A Calling in Crisis

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In Fones's 10 years as a priest, these days rank among the church's darkest. He has been praying about how to broach the sex-abuse subject with the 800 or so members of St. Thomas More University Parish. This particular Sunday, though, won't be the day he takes on the subject.

Still, he will have plenty to occupy him: By the end of the day, he'll have donned his white and purple robes three times for mass, helped organize a slide presentation with a local author, and talked to University of Oregon students experiencing final-exam jitters. He'll have cooed over new babies in the parish, and held vespers at the house next door to the church, where he lives with two fellow Dominican priests.

For all the current troubles, he still can say, "This is a tremendously blessed life."

* * *

It would seem these are hard times to be a priest – and the scandal is only part of it.

About 20,000 men have left the priesthood in recent years – a large portion of the church's "workforce" in the United States. Most left to get married.

Their empty posts outnumber the new priests coming out of seminary. And the shortage is made more acute by the fact that church membership is growing. The ratio of priests to parishioners is about half what it was in 1950, leaving hundreds of parishes without their own fulltime pastors.

Some priests, says Fones, are concerned that being spread so thin in their parish duties will leave them "simply sacrament-dispensers."

Many Catholic writers and leaders also note that the percentage of homosexuals is significantly higher among priests than it is in the general population – and especially high among young seminarians about to enter the priesthood.

Discomfort with that, they say, may deter some heterosexual men from entering seminaries, and – in public perception, at least – it relates to the current scandal in which the majority of reported abuses have involved adolescent boys.

All this has stirred intense debate of late – among the laity, but also within the priesthood – about the historical or theological necessity for priestly celibacy, and whether priests should be allowed to marry.

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