WASHINGTON (June 6, 2000) -- How to serve a growing number of U.S. Catholics given a declining number of priests, and an increasing number of deacons and lay ministers will be the subject of a key discussion at the Spring meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), in Milwaukee, June 15-17.
The discussion is a follow-up to the bishops' Study of the Impact of Fewer Priests on the Pastoral Ministry, which will be released at the meeting.
"This will be a vital conversation," said Bishop Richard Hanifen, head of the Bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, which spearheaded the study. "We need to consider how to meet the challenges we see before us and the implications of the changes upon us. Responses must come from throughout the Church and include everything from how we promote vocations to the priesthood, form and educate lay ministers, and steward human and material resources to what the 21st Century Catholic should expect from the parish community."
The study found
- Catholics are increasing in the United States, especially in the West and the South. It found, for example, that the Catholic population has increased by 261 percent in the West and by 196 percent in the South over the past forty years, while it grew by 52 percent and 59 percent respectively in the East and the Midwest. It also found increasing diversity with fast growth in the Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander populations.
- The number of deacons and lay ministers is increasing. The study found a growing cadre of lay ecclesial ministers, with approximately 30,000 at this time, and another 30,000 currently in formation in degree or certificate programs. It also found that there are over 13,000 deacons in the United States, with another 2,500 in formation.
- The number of priests has not kept up with Church growth. The study found that 82 percent of dioceses and eparchies report that they have fewer priests relative to their needs compared to a decade ago. The shortage is most reported in the Midwest and the West, and least reported in the Northeast and the South. For example, the ratio of priests to people in 1900 was approximately 1:900. In 1950 the ratio was approximately 1: 650. In 1999, the ratio was approximately 1: 1200. The 1940's and 1950's saw a significant increase in the number of priests, but the years since have been something of a balancing out as the century came to a close.
The study also noted that there are several distinctions that are critical for viewing the 1999 ratio of priests to people. First, the age of the one priest in 1999 is much higher than it was in 1900. Second, the 1,200 people in the equation reflect much greater diversity than they did in 1900. Third, parish life is much more complex than it was 100 years ago. As a result, whole new skill sets are required of today's pastors. Of special note is that the priest to people ratio in the West is 1: 1752. This is much higher than the national rate. There are 46,709 priests in the United States. Approximately, 27,000 priests are active in parish ministry. The average age of priests in the United States is 57 years for diocesan priests, and 63 years for religious order priests. There are 433 priests over the age of 90 and 298 priests under the age of 30.
- A variety of ways to staff parishes has emerged. The study found that of the 19,000 or so parishes in the United States, 73 percent still have their own resident pastor, 2,386 parishes share a pastor and 2,334 parishes are without a resident pastor. Almost every diocese reports having fewer assistant pastors, and 437 parishes have been entrusted to the pastoral care of a person other than a priest, following Canon 517.2. About 13 percent of the dioceses report closing parishes as a strategy for addressing the situation of fewer priests. In addition, 52 percent of dioceses report utilizing deacons in greater sacramental/liturgical ministry and 74 percent of dioceses report more utilization of lay ecclesial ministers. In addition, 81 percent of the dioceses report greater use of lay ecclesial ministers in diocesan offices and institutions and 86 percent of the dioceses expect to go more in these directions over the next ten years.
- The new picture challenges clergy morale. In focus groups during the study, priests reported frustration that the administrative responsibilities and the sometimes unrealistic expectations of parishioners give them little time for the sacramental and interpersonal aspects of ministry that they find so fulfilling. These same demands lead to increased isolation and less mentoring from brother priests. In addition, the rapid growth of population in some areas, and the decline in other areas, combined with the increased ethnic diversity, and an evolving sense of parish life and organization, means that parish ministry is far more complex for priests today.
Priests are encouraged by the growth in the diaconate and in parish lay ministry but express a desire for a core concerted national-level conversation among bishops that will lead to a more holistic understanding of the issues involved and possibly to more creative long term solutions. Deacons report being well utilized. They express some anxiety, however, about not having enough time for their ministry to charity, what they call "street ministry," because of increased sacramental and liturgical ministry.
- Catholics report satisfaction with Church leadership. The study found that while most Catholics notice that there has been a decline in the number of priests, less than one in four say they have been personally affected by this change. In fact, over 75 percent of the people report that they have not been affected by a decline in the number of priests. Younger Catholics are least likely to say that they have noticed or been affected by the decline.
Catholics most favor increasing use of deacons and lay ministers to help meet the needs of Catholics in a time of fewer priests. Slightly more than half favor merging parishes as a way to meet needs.