CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The pews are packed at many Catholic churches, but a scarcity of priests is leaving even some of the biggest parishes short-staffed and scrambling for help from retired and visiting clergy.

Recent examples aren’t hard to find:

Just one full-time priest for months at 13,000-communicant St. Gabriel in Cotswold, N.C.

A pastor’s heart-bypass operation, with complications, that left 14,000-communicant St. Mark in Huntersville, N.C., struggling to find substitutes to celebrate Mass.

A sanctuary so crowded on Ash Wednesday that a parishioner at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Charlotte, where two priests serve a flock of 28,000, called the fire marshal.

Why not just build more churches? Not enough priests to staff them.

And while four newly ordained priests will be assigned to Charlotte diocesan churches this summer, some of the busiest Catholic pastors in town are just a few years shy of retirement age.

A NEW TREND FOR N.C.

The graying of the priesthood and the shortage of priests are old news in parts of the country that have long had large Catholic populations. But the crisis is starting to touch the Charlotte area, where Catholics – once a tiny minority – have surged in the last few decades. They now make up the largest denomination in Mecklenburg County if you count children, which Catholics do.

To help replenish the clergy ranks, a few veteran local pastors are even calling for the Vatican to consider allowing the ordination of married men – a suggestion that virtually no one expects Pope Benedict XVI to seriously entertain.

“I wouldn’t say the problem is down the road. It’s already here,” says the Rev. Frank O’Rourke, pastor at St. Gabriel, where his solo stint lasted for three months last year. “If you can’t open parishes because of a lack of priests, then the problem is today, not just tomorrow.”

Clergy shortages are also a concern in some Protestant denominations. But the Catholic situation in many places, including the Charlotte area, is especially acute because of two factors: the large increases in congregations and the pivotal role of the priest in the Catholic Mass, which centers on Communion.

“Catholic services do not function without a priest present,” says Monsignor John McSweeney, pastor at St. Matthew since mid-1999.

At least the Diocese of Charlotte isn’t closing parishes, which is happening in places like Boston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

With so many Catholics migrating here from the East, the Midwest and Latin America, the challenge is often to do more with fewer priests.

McSweeney had been ready to implement a plan to reduce overcrowding at St. Matthew by adding even more Sunday morning Masses. Then one of the church’s four priests left to help O’Rourke at St. Gabriel and another suffered a stroke.

“Our priests are being stretched very, very thin,” says Dan Hines, the head usher at the megachurch.

VIDEO MASSES NOT AN OPTION

The fire department didn’t actually come to St. Matthew on Ash Wednesday, but McSweeney immediately made some changes. He added a second 10:45 a.m. Mass, in the church gym; recruited the chaplain at Charlotte Catholic High School to help out on Sundays; and hired three local police officers to enforce the fire code and direct people to the “overflow Mass” on the basketball court.

As big as it is, many newcomers continue to flock to St. Matthew, which sponsors 103 active ministries. But McSweeney and the diocese also have heard some call for building new churches to absorb the growth.

“Facilities are actually easy to build,” says McSweeney, who presides over a lay staff of 58 and an operating budget of $5.5 million. “The question is the staffing. And the current situation is this shortage of Roman Catholic priests.”

Some big Protestant churches deal with growing numbers by starting new satellite campuses, then often showing sermon videos rather than having the pastor make a personal appearance in the pulpit.

Catholic parishes generally don’t have that luxury. They usually just build new churches – when they have the clergy and trained people to staff them.

Diocese spokesman David Hains acknowledges that a church of 28,000 is “probably larger than anybody wants it to be.” But he says the 46-county diocese has no current plans to erect any new churches in Mecklenburg or Union counties.

The need is for priests, he said. “That’s really the thing hampering expansion.”

Theories abound on why there’s been such a steady decline in men becoming Catholic priests. Some have pointed to the end of an age when large ethnic Catholic families often supplied one of their sons to the priesthood. Others say that celibacy is a harder sell in today’s culture. Still others blame the clergy sex abuse crisis that has devastated many dioceses here and abroad and made recruitment even more difficult.

LAY PEOPLE FILL IN

Priests do have help.

Though there are some things only they can do – celebrate Masses, hear confessions, serve as pastors – there’s a long list of other things they can turn over to staff.

At St. Matthew, McSweeney says his “trained, sophisticated, faith-filled staff people” handle everything from religious education to clinical counseling to visitation of the sick. At St. Gabriel, O’Rourke says his “well-seasoned” lay staff also readies children and adults for sacraments such as First Communion and marriage.

And in recent decades, priests have gotten reinforcements from “permanent deacons.” Mostly married men, these unsalaried ministers train for four years before being ordained and taking on some duties long reserved for priests. They can perform weddings and baptisms – both Catholic sacraments – as well as bury the dead and give homilies (sermons) during Mass.

Also helping the diocese are religious orders, many of them headquartered in the North and most also hurting from a drop-off in new priests. They send clergy elsewhere to staff several churches.

The Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, provides three priests for Charlotte’s oldest Catholic church, St. Peter in uptown. Priests in the Vincentian order staff Charlotte’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Spanish-speaking parish that serves immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Without the 52 priests from religious orders, “we would be dead in the water,” says Monsignor Richard Bellow, the pastor at St. Mark who underwent heart surgery. Bellow, one of 78 diocesan priests in a Charlotte diocese that numbers close to 400,000 Catholics – half of them Hispanic.

Still, Bellow and other veteran pastors say the shortage of priests is pronounced enough for the diocese – and the Vatican – to consider some creative, even groundbreaking, changes.

Bellow suggests the possibility of naming lay leaders or nuns to administer some churches, including arranging for “sacramental priests” – traveling clergy with no administrative responsibilities – to show up to celebrate Mass.

In the late 1980s, Sister Mary Pauline Clifford ran small Holy Infant Catholic Church in Reidsville, N.C., as “parochial administrator.” In the Charlotte diocese these days, nuns who serve in parishes generally take on other roles: education, counseling, outreach.

PUSHING FOR PRIESTLY MARRIAGE

But bishops in other places, such as Albany, N.Y., and San Bernadino, Calif., continue to appoint permanent deacons, nuns and laypeople to be “parish life coordinators” and take on administrative duties traditionally done by pastors.

O’Rourke and McSweeney go even further, saying it’s time for the Catholic Church to seriously consider letting married men – including former priests – become diocesan priests.

Both say they continue to pray for God to inspire more men to become priests. They also promote the priesthood themselves in talks with young men.

But, McSweeney says, the ordination of married men “is something that needs to be prayed about, looked at and more openly talked about.”

The Roman Catholic Church had both married and celibate priests in its first 1,000 years. And in recent years, some say, the Vatican seemed to open the door a crack by inviting married Episcopal and Anglican priests to convert to Catholicism and remain priests.

“It is obvious to me and most priests that I know that there have to be changes,” says O’Rourke, a Philadelphia native. “We have to broaden the base for priestly vocations that would include both married and celibate priests.”

Bishop Jugis and other top Charlotte diocesan officials prefer to speak to the Observer through spokesman Hains, who says the diocese has no laypeople running parishes.

“The bishop really wants to keep a priest in every church,” Hains says.

And Jugis will abide by Pope Benedict’s recent affirmation of celibacy for Catholic priests.

“There’s no possibility, in light of what the pope just said, that the bishop would be encouraging allowing priests to marry,” Hains says.

Instead, Hains says, Jugis will continue to pray for and encourage “priestly vocations,” the term Catholics use to describe their belief that God inspires some men to become priests. Most Catholic churches include prayers for such vocations to the priesthood.

“He’s talking to individuals all the time (about considering the priesthood),” Hains says. “And he really does believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Polls conducted by a Catholic research group at Georgetown University turned up strong support among lay Catholics for letting married men be ordained as priests, with 75 percent saying it was OK or a good idea. The approval was even higher, 81 percent, for letting former priests who left to get married return, according to the 2005 poll by the Center for the Applied Research of the Apostolate.

Asked about women priests, the support was lower, but still a majority.

And if the current system isn’t changed?

“There’s a steady supply of new priests being ordained,” says Mary Gautier, a senior researcher with CARA, “but the number is only about a third as many as we need to replace those retiring, dying and getting sick.”

“The situation,” she said, “is not going to improve in the short term.”