Shortly after 11 yesterday morning, Bishop Joseph Galante stood over Lawrence Polansky and John Rossi as the two prostrated themselves before the altar of St. Peter Celestine Church in Cherry Hill.

"Hear us, Lord, our God," Galante prayed, "and pour out on these servants of yours the blessing of the Holy Spirit."

Moments later, he lay hands on their heads, and called on both to stand as the newest priests in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden.

Ordinations are joyous moments in the life of a diocese, and yesterday's were no exception.

Yet the sight of only two new priests was a jarring contrast to an era - one that flourished as recently as the 1960s - when the Camden Diocese ordained 10 to 20 each year.

Driven in part by a rapidly dwindling priest supply, Galante is weeks away from a seismic parish reorganization. This summer he expects to issue the first decrees that will merge nearly half the parishes in the six-county diocese.

Over the next year, the number of parishes will be reduced from 124 to 68, with 40 additional churches remaining as sites for occasional Masses and other liturgies.

"I couldn't leave it to my successors," Galante, 70, said in an interview Wednesday. "It would have been irresponsible."

Even after five years in Camden, he acknowledged, he misses the friends he made during his 12 years as a bishop in the Texas dioceses of Beaumont, San Antonio, and Dallas. But he was "happily surprised" when Pope John Paul II appointed him here, across the river from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where he grew up and where three of his brothers live.

Installed April 30, 2004, as Camden's seventh diocesan bishop, Galante said he soon realized that 41 of his parishes "could not pay their basic bills," such as utilities, insurance, and health benefits.

He also inherited a diocese with the steepest decline in priest population of any in the nation: 43 percent since 1995.

The trend shows no signs of abating. By 2015, death and retirement are expected to nearly halve the number of active diocesan priests, from 162 to 85. And with nearly 400,000 of the 500,000 Catholics in his diocese skipping regular Sunday Mass and sacraments, "something had to be done," he said. "The situation, if not acute, was immediate."

Galante's radical parish reorganization, announced April 3, 2008, launched protest demonstrations in all six counties - Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem - and at least a half-dozen formal appeals to the Vatican.

But as shocking as Galante's sweeping approach had seemed a year ago, it already is "the model for other Catholic dioceses," said Charles Zech, professor of economics at Villanova University and an authority on church finance.

He described Galante last week as the "poster boy for parish closings."

A lot of other bishops "are recognizing you've got to do it the way Galante did, rather than drag it out over years," said Zech, author of a new book on Catholic parish reorganization, Listening to the People of God, with Robert Miller, director of planning for the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

"It's painful," Zech said, "but dragging it out is worse."

In an independent survey of priests in the diocese last year, 72 percent supported Galante's efforts, and 19 percent said they were "neutral."

Still, interviews with lay Catholics in South Jersey suggest Galante's vision of fewer but larger, more "vibrant" parishes - with the resources to become inviting spiritual and social hubs for families - has not yet won over his flock.

"He's got to do what he's got to do," Joe Scott, 52, of Audubon, said last week.

Scott described himself as an "occasional" Catholic who knew little about Galante's motives. "It's all about personnel and economics. He doesn't have enough priests," he said. But the imminent parish closings "have a lot of people, especially the older people, really upset."

Joyce Buckley, 56, a Barrington homemaker, said that "most people don't know" what Galante hopes to achieve - herself included. She described herself as a "holiday Catholic" who had not studied the plan.

Maureen Brand, 48, a veterinary technician who goes to Sunday Mass "pretty regularly" at St. Rose of Lima parish in Haddon Heights, said she was "not up to date" on the bishop's broad objectives, but called the closings a "shame."

"We need prayer and religion," Brand said.

Harry Gerald Whitaker, a union carpenter who attends Sunday Mass regularly at St. Francis de Sales in Barrington - "I feel guilty if I don't" - acknowledged he didn't know Galante's vision for renewed parish life. But something, he asserted, needs fixing.

"At the 8 o'clock Mass, there's maybe 14, 15 people," said Whitaker, 57. "Go back 20 years, and if you got there late, you couldn't find a seat."

Yet he said he goes to Mass more out of duty than engagement. "Mass every day is the same," he said. "It's not exciting."

Standing in the parking lot of Sacred Heart School at St. Francis de Sales, Megan O'Donnell, 43, said she "gets" why Galante is closing parishes, including hers.

"If you attached a string to this parish and drew a circle, you'd intersect a half-dozen other parishes" in neighboring towns, she said, naming a few. "I understand that.

"But that said, you've got the 'heart' problem: We love St. Francis," said O'Donnell, whose four children range in age from 7 to 17.

Although the brick church will survive as a "secondary" worship site, its parish boundaries will soon dissolve into a new entity centered on Mary Mother of the Church parish in Bellmawr. The new boundaries will include St. Gregory's in Magnolia.

A graphic designer and sign maker, O'Donnell said Galante's idea of bigger, busier "hub" parishes "makes sense," but predicted it would "take at least five years" for most Catholics to connect emotionally with the concept.

Galante, due to retire in five years, acknowledged last week that his new vision for the diocese would take time.

"I said from the beginning this will not happen overnight," he said. "As I told the priests recently, I won't be here to see the full flowering." He said he hoped whoever followed him sustained his plan, but the Vatican - not he - will choose his successor.

"I can write a letter describing the state of the diocese before I go . . . ," he said, finishing his sentence with a shrug.

Galante stressed that his plan reflected the wishes of the laity, whose members repeatedly told him in his first years here that they wanted more programs for youths and young families and better faith training for adults.

About 200 adult lay leaders already are learning to teach the faith, and, Galante said, he is eager to create a system of parish-based "mentor couples" to be guides and role models to newlyweds.

Ultimately, however, his vision for the parishes is not social but spiritual, he said.

"I take my role as bishop very seriously. I'm distressed at the number of Catholics who don't participate in weekly Mass, or the life of the church, or even know what the Catholic Church teaches.

"If it stays that way," he said, "they lose out on a relationship with Jesus. And that's my biggest concern."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.