Priest shortage

The Priest Shortage as a Spur to Pastoral Planning

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “The Future of the Parish and Its Priestly Leadership,” Today’s Parish (October 1996): 26-29.

DPC LogoSmallLast year, while attempting to catechize my five-year-old son, I asked him, “How many Gods are there?” He immediately answered, “One God.” I beamed my approval at him. Then his face momentarily clouded over, and he said, “No; two Gods.”

“Two Gods?” I asked. “What two Gods?”

“You know,” he said, referring to our parish pastor and auxiliary priest, “Father Kidney and Father Lopez.”

You may find it cute that a child deifies the parish priest, or you may be offended at the apotheosis of the clergy. But it is clear that my child enjoys a luxury that is becoming increasingly rare: the experience of a parish with more than one priest. In fact, my three sons have grown up as an extended part of a seminary community, and take their familiarity with seminarians and priests for granted.

Most Catholic communities in America cannot do so. In my lifetime, I have witnessed a decline in the number of Catholic clergy, and a rise in the age of those who remain, that is dramatic and discomfiting. Richard Schoenherr, a former priest and University of Wisconsin sociologist who died last spring, told the story well in his 1993 Full Pews and Empty Altars, co-written with Lawrence A. Young. By the year 2005, the authors state, there will be 21,000 active diocesan priests, down from 35,000 in 1966. Almost half will be 55 or older. The decline in priestly ordinations is a more significant cause of the shortage, they conclude, than resignation and retirement.

These statistics suggest that my sons will not grow up with the Church that I grew up with. They will find the Church having to restructure itself in the light of a smaller number of priests. The diminished number of clergy will necessitate more than new staffing patterns. The fact of fewer priests will change many of our attitudes as well: there will be less opportunities for intimate conversations with priests, less opportunities for the sacraments, less opportunities to celebrate the liturgy. Let us consider, for a few moments, the dimensions of the priest shortage, the efforts of diocesan planners to cope with it, and some of the changes in attitude which are already starting to happen.

Dimensions of the Shortage

Schoenherr and Young’s Full Pews and Empty Altars is a history and projection of the clergy shortage. Based on historical records supplied by 86 out of 174 U.S. dioceses, the authors meticulously traced the decline in priest personnel from 1966 to 1986. Although they find that the mighty wave of priest resignations in the 1960s and 1970s has dried up to a trickle, nevertheless seminaries today receive only a relatively small number of applicants. There are certainly not enough to replace those who have resigned, and not even enough to replace those who leave the ranks of the priesthood due to retirement, incapacity, or death.

After their 20-year history of the decline, Schoenherr and Young project into the future, from 1986 to 2006. In Chapter 2 they offer three scenarios. The first scenario is pessimistic: what will happen if the decline in the number of priests continues as it has in the past thirty years. The second scenario is moderate: it anticipates that priestly demographics from 1980-84 (a period in which the decline in priests slowed) will continue into the next century. The third scenario is optimistic: what will happen if clergy resignations and retirements diminish and if the number of ordinations and the immigration of priests rise.

Based on these projections, Schoenherr and Young offer a picture of priest personnel in the 21st century which is markedly different from what most American Catholics knew earlier in this century. The authors state that, under a moderate projection, the number of diocesan priests in 2005 will decline by 40 percent from the number in 1966. Even with the optimistic projection that ordinations will rise by 25 percent, the number of diocesan priests in 2005 will have fallen by a third. The numbers have been falling for 30 years, say Schoenherr and Young, and they will continue to fall.

I live in Southern California. Parishes here can seem relatively insulated from the priest shortage. There are no “priestless parishes” in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. But this statement is misleading. Although every archdiocesan parish has a resident priest, the ratio of parishioners to priests is the worst in the United States. In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, according to Schoenherr and Young, there were 3,958 parishioners per active diocesan priest in 1980. At the same time, the national average was 1,474. The absence of “priestless parishes” does not make up for the fact that there are too few priests for a burgeoning Los Angeles Catholic population.

When my five-year-old is in high school, our parish will no doubt still have a resident pastor. But the pastor will be older, and he will quite likely have no associate to help him.

Responses to the Crisis

Diocesan planners know the numbers in Full Pews and Empty Altars. They already feel the gap between the numbers of priests and the need for pastoral services. The average Catholic, however, knows very little about it. The gap is only felt when it affects the local parish, the schedule of Masses, the parochial school. But the gap between priests and the need for pastoral services is widening. Ordinary Catholics and parish councils ought to reflect on it, and not be caught unawares.

The shortage of clergy is only the beginning of the problem. Low diocesan income and shifting populations complicate it. Low income prevents bishops from hiring other, non-ordained pastoral workers. Shifting populations can leave one area with too many parishes and priests for a shrinking number of Catholics, or not enough for a growing number. Pity the poor bishops who try to serve a mobile Catholic people with insufficient priests and an inadequate diocesan income!

American bishops have tried to solve these problems by changing parish structures and by increasing ministers. Their efforts were the topic of a recent book entitled Diocesan Efforts at Parish Reorganization, published in 1995 by the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development. Based on a survey of 46 U.S. parishes, the study reveals how bishops redeploy their priests to the areas of greatest need, close and merge parishes, and recruit priests and other pastoral ministers, all in an effort to cope with the smaller number of clergy.

Out of 46 dioceses surveyed, all but four have “priestless parishes,” according to the book’s principal authors, Joseph Verla and John Flaherty. The decline in the number of clergy is so severe that in eleven dioceses, one parish in five lacks a resident pastor. Most of these dioceses are in the Midwest: three in Wisconsin, two in Iowa. In six Midwestern dioceses, priestless parishes are more than 30 percent of the total.

How have American Catholics felt the priest shortage? Verla and Flaherty list a number of ways:

  • the closure, merger, and consolidation of parishes;
  • less frequent celebrations of the Eucharist;
  • greater lay responsibility for ministry;
  • alienation felt by some Catholics who do not understand the changes;
  • shifts in priestly identity, role, effectiveness and morale;
  • growing numbers of laity, religious and deacons employed as pastoral ministers.

Most American Catholics only know about the priest shortage when they hear about parish closures in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. But when it hits home, a parish closure can be devastating. Richard W. Lyons, Director of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Superior, expressed this well in Diocesan Efforts. 41 percent of parishes in the Superior diocese have no resident pastor, he said, and a parish closure “closely parallels the individual experience of death and dying.”

Facing the Changes

How are American Catholics facing the changes brought about by the priest shortage? Diocesan planners say that parishioners should be involved in making the changes. In the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, where 42 percent of parishes have no resident pastor, planners have developed “criteria for parish viability.” These are minimum standards for parish population, finance, and income–standards which help determine whether a resident pastor will be assigned.

Sister Dorothy Schwendiger, Coordinator of the New Ulm Diocesan Staff, has the job of helping parishes grasp the standards. They must look beyond the fate of their invididual parish, she said in Diocesan Efforts, and see a broader picture. When facing changes brought by the priest shortage, she said, parishioners require “a broadening concept of priesthood, clergy morale, and empowerment of women.” When parishes must close, she said, the planner helps people connect their experience to the death and resurrection of Jesus, “companioning God’s people through the Paschal Mystery as reflected in denial, resistance, grief, and loss.”

Such changes have a profound effect on priests as well. As their numbers fall, they find that their style of ministry changes. This is the experience of Father David F. Hulshof, Director of Regional Planning for the Diocese of Springfield – Cape Girardeau, where 37 percent of parishes have no resident pastor. Springfield priests “are more apt to collaborate than simply delegate,” he said in Diocesan Efforts. “Priests feel more confident to ‘turn over’ parish programs given the competence of the laity.”

Not everyone, however, is so upbeat about the the consequences of the priest shortage. One of the biggest unresolved questions has to do with celebrations of the Eucharist. Without a resident pastor, is it better to have a visiting priest come to the parish for weekly Mass? Or is it better to pray without a visitor, using instead an approved order of worship, such as Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest?

This question is hotly debated, and the answer is by no means clear. Some argue that the Eucharistic Liturgy has such value that it does not matter whether the community knows the priest-celebrant. Others argue that community solidarity is weakened by having to invite a relatively unknown priest to lead Catholics in worship. The American experience of the “circuit rider priest” is a mixed one, and the jury is still out. One thing is clear: we feel the consequences of the priest shortage most acutely when it affects our liturgical life and experience of God.

Task of Parish Councils

How can Catholics prepare themselves for the changes which the priest shortage will bring? Pastoral councils, I believe, should be the main parish forums for this question. Canon Law states that the principal task of the pastoral council is to consider pastoral problems, ponder them, and propose concrete solutions–and what pastoral problem is more worthy of a council’s consideration than that of the future of the parish and its priestly leadership?

Even if the parish does not face the prospect of closure, it would do well to consider the future of parish leadership: what kind of leadership do parishioners want? How is the pastor presently fostering the development of lay leaders? What can parishioners do when their present pastor is transferred? How can they raise consciousness about careers in Church ministry and about vocations to the priesthood as a vocation to community leadership?

If the diocese is restructuring parishes as a response to the priest shortage and to shifting parish populations, then the parish pastoral council faces an even more urgent task. Is the parish a candidate for closure, merger, or consolidation? If so, then the council ought to learn (1) what are the criteria for parish viability, (2) whether the parish meets those criteria, and (3) what it can do to strengthen itself.

The Catholic Church in the United States is going through a “sojourn in the wilderness,” Auxiliary Bishop Paul A. Zipfel of St. Louis told the Conference for Pastoral Planning and Council Development in 1994. In the early 1960s, he said, the Church was experiencing its proudest moments. The Vatican Council had ushered in a world-wide Church renewal and a Catholic president occupied the White House. Thirty years later, policies inimical to Catholic teaching are the law of the land, the Vatican appears to pursue a policy of centralizing power, and the number of priests in the U.S. continues to fall. The task of local faith communities, and especially of councils, is to look without blinking at the problems we face, consider our options, and plan ways to sustain ourselves during a harsh and trying journey.