An article I wrote for Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly is online now and in print next week. It focuses on statistical projections of Church life 25 years into the future in 2035. One of the themes is how we will likely need to deal with parish and sacramental life that includes many fewer priests (i.e., if current trends continue).
One of the surprises of the research is that few Catholics say they have been personally affected by a shortage of priests yet in CARA Catholic Polls (CCP). Perhaps it’s all an issue of localized change? You may hear about one or more parishes closing in your diocese but these changes rarely get “aggregated” in a national perspective (... from 2000 to 2009, the number of parishes in the United States declined by 6.2 percent or -1,278 parishes).
I did the simplest research one can do these days and googled “priest shortage” for news results. Here is what I found in the first page of results for news within the last month:
- Taking its toll: "The Diocese of San Bernardino is closing a 50-year-old parish in the desert community of Joshua Tree, citing “the ongoing priest shortage” as the reason."
- Flowood priest growing leaders, fostering creativity: "With a priest shortage worldwide, more emphasis will be placed on church members running the day-to-day operations."
- Fall River Diocese pulling chaplains from area high schools: "The Diocese of Fall River is removing all full-time chaplains from its high schools in the midst of a priest shortage."
- Parishioners celebrate last Mass at Nicoma Park church: "The Archdiocese of Oklahoma City is closing the church because of a shortage of priests. The church was formed in 1949."
- Monsignor retires from St. Joseph Church: "He's pastor to more than 2000 families at St. Joseph and he has no assistant because of the priest shortage."
Notice the trend in just this small set of recent news results where parishes are being closed and ministries altered not because there are too few Catholics but because of too few priests. Also note that these stories really are scattered all across the country from California to Oklahoma to Massachusetts. In the OSV piece I note that we are all likely in for “steady change” and that parish and sacramental life will be significantly altered for practicing Catholics in the years to come. CARA is currently conducting research for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project to identify and understand emerging pastoral leadership models that can sustain vibrant Catholic parish life in the United States in this changing environment.
This collaboration of the National Association of Lay Ministry (NALM) with four other national ministerial organizations—the Conference of Pastoral Planning and Council Development (CPPCD), the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators (NACPA), the National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association (NCYAMA), and the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (NFPC)—is funded by The Lilly Endowment. It began in 2003 and is scheduled to conclude in 2012.
Research has and will continue to focus on many parish life issues including multiple parish ministry and parish clustering, recruiting and training the next generation of pastoral leaders, the role of finance and pastoral councils, and Canon 517.2 parishes where pastoral care has been entrusted to deacons or lay persons. The research has already or will eventually include surveys of pastors and those entrusted with the care of a Canon 517.2 parish, parish staff persons and volunteers, other parish leaders, as well as parishioners (in-pew). Bishops have been interviewed as part of the project and statistical trends have been and continue to be scrutinized. Much of this research is available on the Emerging Models website (linked above) now or will be available in the future once all projects are completed.
As I note in the OSV piece, unforeseen changes are always likely and let us hope and pray that the projections are off the mark and that the future only holds good news for the Church. I would not mind being wrong on this one.