August 17, 2013 – The “Why” of the Pastoral Plan

This weekend we bring our parish partnership with St. Mary’s in Ellis Grove to a new place as we hold a “joint” Mass together.  Our Pastor and Administrator will concelebrate the Mass, and our communities will have a chance to pray and worship together, as well as hear a little more about what the future holds for our parishes.  As you have read here, heard at Masses, and probably read elsewhere, the main factor driving this is the continuing decline in the number of clergy – a factor which will continue to become more pressing as we continue to lose the services of our priests due to aging and health.  And of course, this is occurring at the same time that very few men are entering the seminary for our Diocese.  We of course must continue to pray for vocations and hope that more young men will hear the call to the priesthood.  However, even if we can turn the current trends around, we will be another 10-15 years down the road before this would have an impact.  So we have definitely reached a crisis point, and even though it seems that things are happening quickly and hastily, the time to plan and begin to act is now.

A question that some folks may have is whether this is a trend across the country.  Well, in most places, yes it is.  I have tried in the past to be careful not to bore you with numbers, but in this case I think they are necessary.  According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the year 2012 marked the first time in over 60 years that the number of parishes in the United States was more than the number of active diocesan priests. 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, a deacon or lay person is entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish by their bishop. 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.

Looking at the map below, in the areas marked in yellow and red, the number of active diocesan priests is less than the number of parishes.  This represents about 60% of all U.S. dioceses.

priestshort

 

The green areas on the map have more active diocesan priests than parishes.  This includes a number of urban areas.  However, as with most statistics, you have to dig a little deeper to get the whole story.  For example, 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. The rural pastor may be able to serve the needs of these communities by himself, whereas the urban pastor may need a parochial vicar and/or 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.

What is clear from the data, however, is that 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.  If the U.S. Catholic population continues to grow, and the number of priests in the U.S. 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.  We may see, even in our neck of the woods, a need to construct one large facility in a central area where many people can gather at one time.  If we reach the point 10-15 years down the road that there are maybe 20-25 active diocesan priests left in our Diocese, many things will have to be modified for us and for those coming behind us. We could reduce the number of Masses, outside of holidays, down to the “demand” capacity (i.e., enough open seats for Mass attendees). We 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 (which we have done in this Diocese) invite 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.  However, this is something that we cannot guarantee will continue over time.

It seems ironic that this coincides with recent efforts in New Evangelization and welcoming new or returning parishioners to communities.  It seems that we wouldn’t want to, at the same time, reduce 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.”

We know that any kind of change is scary.  We like our normal routines.  There is a comfort level in knowing that when we go into our own churches we know where we will sit, where the microphone sounds the best, where the air conditioning doesn’t blow so much, etc.  However, we also find ourselves in the midst of new opportunities.  Bringing our talents together can benefit greatly what will probably become one parish in the future.  I hope that you will be open to our efforts in becoming the church that will serve not only our needs, but the needs of future generations.

Have a great week.  Can this weather really last?  Can the Cardinals ever turn it around?  We’ll see in the week ahead.  Peace.

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