PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In an interview with Eyewitness News, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence reflected on Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States last year – as he talked about the major challenges facing the Catholic Church in Rhode Island today.
Bishop Tobin said the level of excitement, especially for people who were there in person to see the Pope, is something that will never be forgotten.
Almost a year later, the Diocese of Providence continues to face serious challenges.
According to Tobin, “in the last seven years, including this year, we’ve lost 54 priests from active ministry in this Diocese. And that’s huge.”
Tobin said only 15 men were ordained during that time period, leaving a net loss of 39 priests. Next July 1, the start of the Diocese fiscal year, 18 men will be over the retirement age of 70.
What would happen if they all turned in their retirement papers?
“If they all decided to retire at once, then our serious problem would become even more difficult,” Tobin said.
The Diocese has 143 Parishes, 40 schools and more than 30 ministries and Catholic Social Services. Tobin said it’s a combination of fewer priests and too many church buildings.
The changing demographics have hit many communities hard, especially West Warwick, where a commission is underway to study the viability of their eight parishes.
Beginning this July in Woonsocket, four more parishes, including Sacred Heart, Holy Family, St. Charles and All Saints, will be ministered by two priests, bringing the total to 20 priests serving 43 parishes in the Diocese.
Now, the Bishop said a decision needs to be made in regards to Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Federal Hill. The building was closed late last year because of structural and financial problems.
Bishop Tobin said Pope Francis’ idea of examining women deacons in the church isn’t feasible right now under holy orders. While a new class of male deacons is about to get underway in September, Eyewitness News asked Tobin if married men being ordained is a possibility.
“In theory, is it possible? Of course, because we already have some married priests. Do I see it coming in the immediate future in a way that will be helpful to us? No,” he said.
As Eyewitness News first reported in late May, the Diocese is waving a $500 fee once charged for a formal marriage annulment procedure. The Bishop said it is part of the Pope’s plan to simplify the process and possibly bring divorced and remarried Catholic’s back to church.
Bishop Tobin also discussed the topic of taxing non-profits.
Providence officials are once again asking the General Assembly to approve a bill that would allow municipalities to charge nonprofit institutions up to 50 percent of what their tax bill would be if they weren’t tax exempt in order to cover the cost of police, fire and rescue services.
The Bishop said, “We would resist that because the contributions we make in our community – to society – are enormous.”
“All the ministries we have, all the programs we have, would be affected in a very detrimental way if we had to start paying taxes,” he added.
Bishop Tobin also discussed the controversial topic of legislative and community grants.
The Diocese received more than $136,000 last year in legislative grants.
The Bishop said he has no problem with the concept because the Diocese isn’t keeping the money. Instead, it’s being used to help those in need in Rhode Island.
Mike Montecalvo was in Philadelphia, covering the World Meeting of Families during Pope Francis’ visit last year. See some of his reports: