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A shortage of Catholic priests is why the largest congregation in the U.S. is so big

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The largest Roman Catholic parish in the nation is now in California's Central Valley. The recently opened St. Charles Borromeo congregation serves tens of thousands of worshippers each week. Church leaders say the size of the parish is caused in part by a shortage of priests. From Valley Public Radio, Esther Quintanilla reports from Visalia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS RINGING)

ESTHER QUINTANILLA, BYLINE: Hours before Mass, a line of parishioners waits to get inside. Charles Blue (ph) says being early is normal for his family.

CHARLES BLUE: Always early to church - that's just my belief. I always want to be early to church. I don't want to be way in the back.

QUINTANILLA: His wife Carrie Blue (ph) can't wait to go inside.

CARRIE BLUE: I'm kind of wanting that feeling of walking in and saying, this is home. This is where we were meant to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing, inaudible).

QUINTANILLA: On the first Sunday St. Charles Borromeo opened, thousands filled in. A beam of sunlight shone through the skylight above the altar. A mural depicting saints floating in the cosmos looked down at the pews where the Blues took their seat. In the days leading up to the inaugural service, Father Alex Chavez was thrilled to show off the building.

ALEX CHAVEZ: You see the dome, and what you see up in the clouds - that's taken from the Hubble telescope.

QUINTANILLA: Chavez says each piece of art in the sanctuary is meaningful.

CHAVEZ: The centerpiece, the trinity, carved out of wood sent to us from Spain.

QUINTANILLA: The Diocese of Fresno stretches across 200 miles of the largely agricultural San Joaquin Valley. The painting behind the pulpit depicts rows of tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables grown in the region.

CHAVEZ: You see the mural, you see the valley field crop, the valley oak tree that we're known for, the California poppy. You see the little patches, the valley, the Sierras. That's us. That's our story.

QUINTANILLA: St. Charles Borromeo cost $21 million to build and seats more than 3,000 people.

JOSEPH BRENNAN: Our numbers are growing - the numbers of Catholics in this area.

QUINTANILLA: That's Bishop Joseph Brennan, the head of the diocese, which has more than a million registered members.

BRENNAN: The other side of that coin is the diminishing numbers of priests.

QUINTANILLA: He says St. Charles was envisioned to combat that issue.

BRENNAN: This is an attempt on that practical level to create a place where we could have a number of services without really diminishing the health and well-being of our priests.

QUINTANILLA: Researchers at Georgetown University have found the number of Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by more than half over the last five decades. That means individual parishes need to be larger. Here in Fresno, there are 169 priests serving 137 congregations. Mark Gray is with the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown. He says the shortage is caused by various factors, including multiple years of schooling, the requirement of celibacy and communities not talking about priesthood as an option.

MARK GRAY: There's not a lot of encouragement anymore. Fewer tend to choose that path in life.

QUINTANILLA: Gray says that megacongregations like St. Charles relieve stress on smaller parishes in the area. Bishop Brennan says those were overcrowded.

BRENNAN: This is literally centrally located for the Diocese of Fresno and pretty much centrally located for the state of California. But specifically, and maybe in a sense, selfishly for the Diocese of Fresno, it's a perfect location to draw people from every corner of the diocese.

QUINTANILLA: St. Charles Borromeo expects to serve 14,000 families each week with just three full-time priests. Despite that ratio, Brennan says the pastors there will be able to care for their flock.

For NPR News, I'm Esther Quintanilla in Visalia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Esther Quintanilla