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The New Millennium Finds the Church
in Search of Quite a Few Good Men

Michael A. Hinz, PhD
January 12, 2001

Catholic Church: Growth Statistics

      The Catholic Church of the United States has experienced a 34 percent growth since the mid 1960's, increasing to about 60-62 million. Different areas of the country have experienced vastly different growth increases from highs of 261 percent in the West and 196 percent in the South to 59 percent in the Midwest and 52 percent in the East. During the same time period, the number of priests has shrunk by 20 percent with the national average age of diocesan priests currently at 57 years old. Over the next 20 years, while Catholic faith communities continue to grow, about half of the current priests will reach the retirement age of 75. Currently, only about 298 of the approximately 27,000 priests active in parish communities are under the age of 30. Of the over 19,000 Catholic parishes, only 73 percent currently have a resident pastor; 2,386 parishes share a pastor and 2,334 have no resident pastor.

Historical Trends:

      The number of priests serving in the United States has varied greatly over the decades. In the 1780's, 24 priests ministered to 25,000 Catholics (a ratio of about 1:1,000). In 1829, 232 priests served 500,000 Catholics (a ratio of 1:2,150). In New York in 1838, there were 40 priests for 200,000 Catholics (1:5,000). However, by 1884 the trend had begun to improve with over 7,000 priests for 8 million Catholics (1:1,135). At the end of World War I, 21,000 priests served 18 million Catholics (1:850). The decades following saw a great increase in vocations to the priesthood. By 1940, there were almost 36,000 priests for 22 million Catholics (1:630). Then in the 1950's, the trends reversed again. The numbers of priests began to slip as the Catholic population continued to rapidly increase. Between 1968 and 1974, 4,100 priests left the priesthood and fewer and fewer men were entering the seminaries (the number of seminarians dropped from 45,000 in 1967 to less than 12,000 in 1982).

      Over the past 20 years, the exodus of priests has dwindled to about 125 per year. But since 1966, most dioceses have seen a significant decline in the number of priests available to serve (ranging from a decrease as low as 1% to as high as 73%, based on statistics for 86 of 174 U.S. dioceses). A small handful of dioceses (9 out of the 86 reported) have seen an increase in number of priests (ranging from a 6% increase to as high as 253%).

In One Diocese:

      Meanwhile, priests are aging. On average, half of all priests will turn 75 sometime over the next 20 years. For example, in the Diocese of Belleville (Illinois) where the author lives, there are currently about 92 priests (a ratio of about 1:1,228 which is consistent with the national average) serving 128 parishes. Of these parishes, 64 are linked together as 2-, 3-, or 4-parish communities served by a total of 28 priests. The average age of priests is 51 years old. There is one priest under the age of 30 and five in their 70's still serving in parishes. Over the next 10 years, 33 of the 92 (36%) will reach the age of about 75, and over the next 15 to 20 years, 67 of the 92 (73%) will reach retirement age. The diocese currently has 15 seminarians who are anticipated to be ordained over the next 8 years. While these figures are for only one diocese, they are fairly representative of the average diocese in the United States.

A Priestly Vocation?

      This author attended Conception Seminary College from 1984-1986. I know that the discernment process can be a very difficult one for many men who are considering a vocation to the priesthood. Many men may never even consider entering the seminary because the decision is such a difficult one and they have so little active support and encouragement to sustain them through the process. Consider for a moment your own life and the process you have gone through in identifying your career. Perhaps it was easy for you, but for many, it is not an easy discovery process and many frequently find themselves wondering, “what if I had made a different choice?”

The Changing Times:

      Men who are considering the priesthood have to give up many of the enticements that our societal norms teach them to seek if they are to be truly successful in this world. Moreover, there have been numerous changes within our society and our family structures and values over the past 100 years. Gone are the times when a community knew its members and watched out for and encouraged one another. Gone are the times when families lived close to each other and relationships were strong and families counted on each other and supported each other. Now families are frequently separated from each other across the country and even across the world. It is common for neighbors to not know each other. It is common for Catholics to attend the Eucharist and not know very many of their fellow parishioners. We have become a society of strangers. These societal and lifestyle changes have certainly influenced our values concerning the priesthood and have also profoundly impacted priests and the roles in which they now find themselves immersed. Many priests are experiencing high levels of stress and burnout and are feeling overwhelmed by the demands and the responsibilities of serving and managing an ever growing Catholic community in this highly technological era in which we live.

Time to be Family:

      Yes, the shortage of priests is a serious concern and obviously there will be no quick or easy solutions either. The next 20 years are guaranteed to provide many growing pains for the Church. The changing times will see the need for more and more of the faithful to fill various roles within the community as the numbers of available priests continues to decline. There is also a great need for the people of the Church to remember some of our 'family' tradition and to strengthen our faithfulness to that value. As in any other family, we are expected to be supportive and nurturing to one another and especially in times of great need.

      When was the last time someone really sat down and listened deeply to what you had to say without interrupting you or trying to change your mind? In these days, there are many who have never experienced the grace of being heard. We are far too busy for that. There is an old saying that “the family who prays together, stays together.” There is a lot of truth in that, because those families take time for each other. We, the church, need to make time to listen to one another, to be there for one another, to support and encourage one another and to support our priests in their service to us.

      The role of priesthood is a very demanding one and priests cannot succeed in the role by themselves. They need the emotional support and encouragement of the rest of the faith community. We must take the time to listen to them, to offer advice, offer support and to encourage them as they struggle to serve us. In other words, we need to be 'family' again. We need to work at rebuilding the relationships within our faith communities so that we may truly be a 'family' of God. As a strong faith community we will be able to meet the challenges of the new millennium. In an environment where people listen, pray, share, encourage, support and trust one another -- truly wonderful and amazing things happen. In this new millennium, we will have an opportunity to witness this happening as we cope with the Church's growing pains and the changing times.

Information for this article was compiled from these sources:
June 2000 Executive Summary: The Study of the Impact of Fewer Priests on the Pastoral Ministry, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.nccbuscc.org/plm/summary.htm; The Priest Shortage at a Glance, www.FutureChurch.org/priestshortage.shtml; Priest Shortage Panic, by John F. Quinn, Crisis Online, Oct 96, www.catholic.net/RCC/Periodicals/Crisis/Oct96/quinn.html; Diocese of Belleville, IL, www.diobelle.org

Copyright © 2001 Michael Hinz. All rights reserved.