A few good men: Lack of priests forcing pastors to take on more parishes

ABOVE: The Rev. Tom Servatius, left, and the Rev. Jason Hage take a break from their busy schedules and enjoy last year’s Parish Festival. Father Servatius is pastor of four parishes while Father Hage, who is pastor of the two churches that comprise Mary, Mother of Our Savior Parish, once managed four parishes along Route 20.


For nearly a year, Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament’s pastor, the Rev. Jim Cesta, has been splitting his weekend worship between Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament and St. Anthony & St. Agnes parishes.

The Rev. Tom Servatius, pastor at Historic Old St. John’s, also shepherds St. Joseph-St. Patrick, St. Peter’s and St. Mark’s parishes. In addition, he also is vicar for the Greater Utica Area in the Syracuse diocese.

The Rev. Jason Hage is pastor of Mary, Mother of Our Savior Parish, which is two churches — Lourdes and Our Lady of the Rosary. Prior to that, he also pastored four parishes along Route 20. And, if that’s not enough, he’s also director of the diocese’s Office of Vocation Promotion.

Welcome to the reality of being a priest in the 21st century.

With the number of priests continuing to decline, clergy have had to take on more than one parish — sometimes two, three, four or more.

Bishop Douglas Lucia acknowledges those demands have affected the clergy.


“The feeling of being pulled in different directions, greater demands being made of them, harder to get their days off or vacation/retreat time, multiplication in bookkeeping and administrative duties, lessening of priestly fraternity due to schedule and distance,” the bishop listed as the challenges. “For our younger priests, either self-expectations or those of others, especially centered on their youthfulness, may be unrealistic and lead to burnout.”

In the Syracuse diocese, there are 69 active priests serving 116 parishes. That’s down from 97 in 2019, 126 in 2014 and 196 in 2004. Forty-seven of those are older than 60; others are in their 70s and some in their 80s.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that in 1965 there were 59,426 priests in the United States. In 2022, there were 34,344. Over much the same period, the number of Catholics has increased to 72.5 million in 2022, from 54 million in 1970.

Our local challenge

Fathers Cesta, Servatius and Hage have found their calling more challenging.

“Higher levels of fatigue,” said Father Servatius, 64, a priest for 21 years. “I know I’m a lot more forgetful these days. And sometimes I feel pretty overwhelmed by everything that is not done. Days off and vacations are elusive sometimes, as has quality time with close friends.”

It is very demanding emotionally, physically, spiritually and psychologically, said Father Hage, 38, who shepherded the four Route 20 parishes for six years.

“Bringing together all four parishes, especially after two priests died in the same year in our one Pastoral Care Area (was a challenge). I was the only pastor/priest for the entire PCA.”

Among the three priests, Father Cesta has been doing it the longest — 50 years. He’s taking things in stride.

“Personally, I enjoy the two parishes, similar in being strongly of Italian heritage but different in tone,” he said. “I enjoy sharing the Gospel message with many people.”


He does acknowledge there are many concerns to deal with, including scheduling Masses, funerals and weddings; arranging extra clergy to cover services; and being present to both parishes as much as possible. He also said fundraising for both parishes, inviting more participation in ministries and practicing Catholics at Mass and weekdays are challenging.

“The ongoing solution is the arranging of scheduling in such a way that most people are content — although not everyone will be,” Father Cesta said. “Also, the merging of religious education and some programs and special events will also take place.”

Father Servatius said he sometimes feels like he can’t adequately respond to the spiritual needs of his flock.

“While I know that I frequently fall short of what is needed, I remind myself that I’m doing the best I can. I’m grateful for those who are understanding, and at arm’s length I keep those who are not. I have to do that for my own survival.

“Too many in most parishes, not just mine, think that while there are changes to be made — the changes are to take place in a parish other than one’s own. Closely related is the belief that we should continue just as we are, when clearly that is not the case. We have to make some serious and significant changes and do them soon. Meanwhile, there are way too many people simply concerned about going to ‘their Mass’ in ‘their pew’ in ‘their church’ at ‘their time.’ That’s got to change.”

Finding solutions

So, what’s to be done?

Bishop Lucia, in a meeting with Utica area parish clergy and leaders in March, said parishes need to look at consolidating and collaborating in things such as Mass scheduling, use of buildings, religious education and more. He said cooperation among parishes is key to survival. He noted that the Catholic churches in the city of Rome, while remaining open, are devising a plan to become one parish.

“I don’t think each parish,” he said. “In my mind, some of our parishes need to be merged in the areas of personnel, pastoral service and schedules. For me, the viability needs to not be seen so much in Church A or Church B, rather it comes from the Catholic community they form and nurture. There can be one parish with more than one worship site, but you also can consolidate both the worship schedule and parish services — such as, one parish office, one Catechetical program, youth program for area young people, etc. On a different note, the priest must be willing to collaborate with deacons, trained lay ministers and other volunteers and not feel that he has to micromanage or do it all whether liturgically or administratively.”

The bishop said another solution is “greater involvement of the laity in the administration of parishes and reminding folks that our churches are not fast-food restaurants with drive-thrus.”

In Utica, plans are underway to combine St. Peter’s and St. Mark’s into one parish by July 2025. The people of those parishes will decide where to hold worship, what to do with unused buildings and other important details.

Not all is negative, however. Father Servatius said there are exceptions — case in point are the two parishes in North Utica.

“The leadership of both parishes have set aside the silo mentality and are naturally pulling together,” he said. “Sometimes, members of one parish will express concern for members of the other parish. Other times, they naturally choose to work together on something. At those moments, I just sit back and think, ‘Wow. I wish I could bottle this.’”

Father Hage said there is a crucial factor to keep in mind when parishes collaborate.

“When doing pastoral planning, we should always keep in mind that there is no greater evangelizing force than a happy, healthy and holy priest,” he said. “There is also no greater encourager for a young person to consider a vocation than one encounter with a happy, healthy and holy priest.”

Vocations’ challenge

In decades past there were several priests for each parish.

No more.

Father Hage said there currently are 10 seminarians in formation for the Diocese of Syracuse. He said that’s typically the average number in formation each year.

“I believe the reason for the vocations crisis today is a deep fear of commitment among young people as well as the lack of support for vocations in Catholic homes,” he said. “The recent CARA study out of Georgetown University suggests that the greatest discourager of a vocation to the priesthood and consecrated life today are parents.”

What about allowing married priests?

“Married men are already allowed to get married in the Catholic Church,” he said. “There are 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in communion with the Holy Father in Rome that allow for married clergy. Some Protestant pastors who enter the Catholic Church are allowed to serve as married clergy as well.

“I do not foresee the ordination of women to the priesthood,” Father Hage added. “In my time as the director of vocation promotion, I have learned that even though other Christian denominations allow for married clergy, women clergy, etc., those denominations are in a worse vocations crisis than we are in Catholicism. The only reason I point to this fact is to dismiss the notion that allowing for these things would bring immediate relief to the vocation crisis in the Catholic Church.”

Father Servatius said he finds hope in the priest shortage.

“I don’t see this as much as a problem but an opportunity to move toward a Church being called for by the Spirit,” he said. “Lay involvement is absolutely needed, but well-trained lay involvement.”

Down the road

Is closing and merging parishes a good idea to alleviate the situation?

“The closing and merging of parishes is the writing on the wall — unless there is a resurgence of faith being practiced by Catholics from 20 to 50 years of age,” Father Cesta said. “These are the sons and daughters, the grandchildren of those who faithfully walk in the way of Catholic faith now, but do not challenge those younger.”

Father Servatius said closing parishes is inevitable.

“With springtime upon us, we welcome the return of parishioners who we affectionately call the ‘snowbirds,’” he said. “They’ve been down south a few months. Every spring I hear the same thing: How big their parish down south is, how big the collection is, how big the staff is, how involved the parish is, how many priests and deacons the parish has, etc. And their weekend crowds are sometimes bigger than all the parishes in Utica combined.

“Why is that?” he continued. “Because they don’t have a parish on every street corner. They’re rightsized. We could have that same kind of dynamic and vibrant experience of faith, but it is not likely as long as we insist on hanging on to all of our campuses. We have the resources to make it happen, but we are spending way too much on buildings. In the meantime, there is the human resource piece: our priests are spending less time with the people on a Sunday and more time in their car. Is this what we want?”

Bishop Lucia said closing parish buildings might be an option in the future, and many factors will go into those decisions.

“It has to be so because the demographics and birth rates in the Northeastern U.S. have drastically changed, and this is reflected in our parishes,” he said. “In actuality, it is not parishes being closed as much as parish boundaries being changed, whereby they might become part of the territory of another existing parish, or the decision is to take two or three parishes and form them into one new parish.

“What may be closed as result of such changes or mergers are church buildings or other facilities, after an examination of whether they are needed. In this instance, the faithful would become members of the new parish and the worship site that is designated for it. In turn, this is an opportunity for growth and a renewal of understanding of what it means to be Church.”

The bishop added those decisions will be made with the help of the PCA (Pastoral Care Areas), local pastors, parishioners and the guidance of the diocesan bishop and his staff.

“Some factors involved in such decisions are Mass attendance and sacramental records, financial status, parish/pastoral services available, viability of the community, the condition of the parish facilities, the location of other Catholic churches in the area, and demographics,” he said.

Father Servatius said that he now believes that the diocese finally is taking appropriate steps to address the situation.

“Over the long haul, I think we’re moving in the right direction — slowly and intentionally growing lay involvement,” he said. “It takes time if you are going to do it right. It takes proper discernment to determine if you have the right person in the right ministry, and it takes proper training so they do it well. Plus, it takes time for people to understand that their needs might be met by someone other than an ordained person. We’ll get there.”