FORTVILLE — If it’s snug sometimes at Saturday evening Mass, there’s a reason: There won’t be another Mass on Sunday morning.
It’s taking some getting used to for the congregation of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Fortville, but it’s the way things are after new priestly appointments for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis that took effect earlier this month.
The Rev. Robert Hankee, who had served at St. Thomas for three years, has been assigned to pastor Christ the King Catholic Church in Indianapolis following the retirement of its priest, the Rev. Todd Riebe.
The Rev. Aaron Jenkins, already pastor of St. Michael Catholic Church in Greenfield, has been assigned to also serve as pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Fortville.
Perhaps the most notable effect of the pastoral transition has been in Mass times. St. Thomas went from three weekend Masses to one, that one being on Saturday evenings. The Saturday Mass at St. Michael is earlier now to accommodate Jenkins’ going to Fortville for the St. Thomas Mass.
During the week, St. Thomas now has one weekday Mass, on Thursdays. As a result, St. Michael does not have a Thursday Mass anymore.
In a letter to the St. Thomas parish, Jenkins explained his reasoning behind the Mass scheduling. He noted that when there’s not a Mass in Greenfield, people have to travel farther to find one at a neighboring parish — 11 miles to St. Thomas, 14 miles to Holy Spirit on 10th Street, or farther. When there’s not a Mass in Fortville, parishioners have a shorter drive to find another Mass at neighboring parishes, such as five or six miles to St. John Vianney or Holy Spirit Geist.
In an early homily to the St. Thomas congregation, Jenkins said he knew he was greeting the congregation as the face of unwelcome change.
“I am only one person, and I cannot do it all,” he wrote in the letter to the parish. “We simply do not have enough pastors to cover all the parishes we currently have in our diocese.”
A glance at a list of 135 priests on the archdiocese’s website would suggest perhaps they could adequately cover the 126 parishes in the archdiocese, which encompasses 38 Indiana counties in central and southern Indiana, plus one township in Spencer County. But the brief biographies attached to those priest names offer a fuller understanding of the situation.
Nine of those priests have died in 2020-22. Two are serving out of state, two are suspended from public ministry, and four are on leave: two on leaves of absence, one on medical leave and one on administrative leave.
Another 45 of those 135 priests have retired — 16 of them in the last five years — though a number of retired priests continue to perform priestly duties in some form, such as filling in at Mass for another priest. Jenkins expects to need such help from time to time.
So, when one subtracts the number of priests who are deceased, retired, elsewhere or otherwise unavailable, that leaves a little over 70 priests to cover those 126 parishes. Of those remaining priests, 27 of them are 60 or older.
Also, pastoring a parish is not the only type of assignment priests may have. They may serve as chaplains for Catholic schools, colleges or seminaries; be designated to celebrate Mass with Catholic students at other colleges; serve as chaplains for prisons, police departments and other entities; or have archdiocesal duties. Many priests have more than one assigned job; Hankee, for example, has been appointed chaplain coordinator to Bishop Chatard High School in addition to pastoring Christ the King’s congregation. A number are already serving multiple parishes.
The archdiocese ordained two new priests this year.
“There just aren’t as many young men going into the priesthood as there are older priests who are needing to retire,” said Stephanie Garst, liturgist of the St. Thomas parish.
Against that backdrop, “You work with what you can,” she said. “Father Aaron’s trying his best for us.”
Jenkins said people of both parishes have been understanding.
“The people here at St. Michael have been very generous,” he said from his office in Greenfield. “They’ve been supportive; they know that it’s going to take more time and effort on my part, take me away from them.
“And the people at St. Thomas have been very gracious, knowing that I’m only one guy and this is the reality.”