U.S. Catholic bishops issue guidelines for lay workers

.- The U.S. Catholic bishops covered a lot of ground in the two first days of their fall meeting. The bishops talked about Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the role of the Catholic laity in public ministry, a reaffirmation of the church's opposition to the death penalty, changes to the order and language of the Mass, financial and spiritual support for the church in Africa, a new religious alliance against pornography and a report by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., reported that priests' morale was high in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.Of 415 U.S. bishops, about 300 attended the meeting this week.

The bishops meet twice a year, but the fall meeting is better attended, and the news media are typically given more access to the bishops in the fall and can observe many session.

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops took a big step Tuesday to acknowledge and deal with one of the church's nagging problems: the growing shortage of priests.The bishops approved new rules and expectations for the American church's 30,632 "lay ecclesial ministers," many of whom are filling tasks that used to be exclusively assigned to clergy. In some parishes, for instance, they conduct weddings and baptisms.The debate showed that a number of bishops worry that the term "minister" undercuts the status of priests. But it has come into common use for lay professionals who are certified and authorized by bishops.

Addressing that issue, the final text emphasizes the gap in status between lay workers and the clergy.Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., who chaired the drafting committee on lay ministers, told a news conference that the church has long had lay religious educators but what's new is the laity handling pastoral and administrative work."That role has evolved because of the shortage of priests," he said.In their final public session, the bishops also approved a statement reaffirming their opposition to the death penalty and heard from New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes about the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

The number of active Catholic priests has dropped from 57,317 to 42,528 since 1985. The church has 30,632 salaried lay ministers who work at least 20 hours a week, a 53 percent increase since 1990. The priesthood shortage is also alleviated by the 15,027 men ordained as permanent deacons to assist priests.

On Tuesday afternoon, the bishops began a day or two of closed-door executive sessions, provoking complaints from lay activists who champion open meetings.Among the issues likely to be discussed behind closed doors are ongoing problems and programs in the wake of the priestly sex-abuse scandal.

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