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
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