Every parish needs a priest. At least one. On Sunday for sure...
Yet, nearly one in five U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest pastor. Seven in ten have a diocesan priest serving in this capacity and religious priests serve as resident pastors in 11% of parishes. In 17% of parishes a priest is serving as a non-resident pastor (in a small number a "team of priests" administrates). In about 430 parishes (or 2.5% of all parishes), due to a shortage of priests, a deacon or lay person is entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish by their bishop (Canon 517.2). Yet even here, the parish life coordinator, as this person is often titled, must still do their best to arrange for priests to be available for Masses and other sacraments.
Priests cannot be in two places at once and there are only so many hours in a Sunday. We have a good understanding of how many parishes there are in the United States and how many priests are available. The map below (click for full size) shows the number of parishes subtracted from the number of active diocesan priests in each diocese. From time to time priests from outside the diocese may come and serve (i.e., externs) to fill needs. It is also the case, as noted above, that many religious priests serve in parishes as well (although their numbers are in decline). But the core of parish life has been diocesan priests serving in their diocese. In 60% of dioceses, those marked in yellow and red, there is no surplus of diocesan priests active in ministry relative to the number of parishes in the diocese.
The green areas on the map have more active diocesan priests than parishes. These include a number of urban areas. But even here the math gets tricky. An urban priest who is a pastor of one parish may be responsible for serving the needs of 5,000 registered households, while a rural priest in one of the red areas of the map may serve as pastor in three parishes in one county with 200 registered households in each parish. That rural pastor may be able to serve the needs of these communities by himself, whereas the urban pastor may need a parochial vicar and a retired priest to assist him and still struggle to meet the needs of his community. Green and red are not always as "clear" as it might seem in practice.
Yet the math does say something important. A "traditional" model of parish where one can find a priest at any time of day or night is not possible in many areas of the United States (to some degree in rural areas and the South this has always been the case and certainly has long been a reality in many other areas of the world). How will parish life change in the future if the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow while the number of priests in the country continues to decline? This would likely create more pressure to close and consolidate parishes at the very time that population growth would indicate a need for new construction.
CARA research indicates the average parish has more than 3,200 registered parishioners along with some unknown (and likely growing) number of unregistered households (...in a recent national CARA survey 55% of adult Catholics said they were in a registered household. This percentage has been falling in the last decade. Only eight in ten of those surveyed in pew during Mass say they are registered). About 1,100 of these parishioners attend a Mass in a typical week. The average seating capacity of Catholic churches is about 540 per Mass. The average parish has about four Saturday/Sunday Vigil Masses per week.
In an era of fewer priests, one could reduce the number of Masses, outside of holidays, down to the "demand" capacity (i.e., enough open seats for Mass attenders). One could also reduce and consolidate parishes to the degree possible (...what is the maximum distance people would be willing and able to travel?). The Church can (...and has in the past) invited priests from overseas to serve here to balance the equation as well. In 1999, international priests made up 8% of all priests in the United States. Today, they are 16% of all priests in the country.
It is also the case that what the United States is experiencing right now is not an entirely new reality—just one many have forgotten in the pages of history. As shown in the figure below, the ratio of diocesan priests active in their diocese to parishes in the United States of 1950 was very similar to what it was in 2012.
There was about one active diocesan priest per parish then as there is now. The late 1950s into the 1970s represent an exceptional period in American history when there were significantly more active diocesan priests available than there were parishes. Age and mortality has and continues to diminish the size of the diocesan clergy population. Although ordinations have remained stable for decades, these are not sufficient to make up for the number of priests lost each year to retirement or death.
Although 2012 may not have felt all that different from 2011, it did represent a new era of parish life in the United States: parishes are beginning to outnumber a key population of priests. Coinciding with recent efforts in New Evangelization and welcoming new or returning parishioners to communities, it seems unimaginable to simultaneously be reducing the number of parishes and/or Masses. Instead, it may be time to more boldly let the country know that the Church is "now hiring."
And there may be more help on the way. Recent CARA research has shown that young men attending a World Youth Day are 4.5 times more likely than those who have not attended to consider becoming a priest or religious brother and one fifth of newly ordained U.S. priests in 2013 say they attended a World Youth Day. With more than 3 million in attendance, the final Mass of World Youth Day in Rio this year is one of the largest gatherings in human history. Somewhere on that beach may be your future pastor...
Image above courtesy of galeriaes.gaudiumpress at Flickr Creative Commons.
Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
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