Bishops' Conference Discusses Priest Shortage
By Sr. Christine Schenk, csj
For the first time in its history the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) held a frank discussion at its June meeting about the ministerial impact of the priest shortage. The conversation occurred in the context of prayer and input from The Impact of Fewer Priests on Pastoral Ministry study commissioned in 1998 by Bishop Anthony Pilla, then President of the NCCB.
Through the kindness of a friend I was able to observe the meeting from the visitors' section. This was a soul satisfying moment. For these past ten years I have journeyed to small and large towns all over the U.S. and Canada to give programs on the priest shortage and the consequences for Catholic worship. Ten years ago no one wanted to talk about it. Yet on this day the bishops were finally beginning to address one of the most important challenges facing Catholicism. I thought that the discussion occurring within the octave of Pentecost was only fitting.
The Priestly Life and Ministry Committee served as the lead agent of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) project which involved the collaborative efforts of no less than eight standing committees. CARA found, among other things, that 27% of U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest, an increase of 17% from 1996 estimates. Between 1950 and 2000 the Catholic population increased by 107% while the total number of priests increased by only 6% (see table). At the same time the average age of priests increased so that we now have more priests over 90 (433) than we do under 30 (298). Nevertheless, North America has the best priest to parishioner ratio in the world: 1:1229 compared with South America at 1:7094.
Numbers of theologate seminarians have declined from 6.602 in 1970 to 3474 in 2000. In the meantime, the number of lay ministry and deaconate candidates has increased dramatically. Presently there are 47,000 paid lay ministers, an additional 30,000 in educational programs, and nearly 13,000 deacons with over 2500 men in formational deaconate programs.
The Bishops discussed the study findings in small groups over lunch at the Midwest Conference Center in Milwaukee and returned for an afternoon open-mike discussion. Responses were predictably varied with some calling for expansion of vocation outreach, more team ministry, and creative utilization of lay ministers and deacons under Canon 517 which allows for entrusting pastoral care of a parish to someone other than a priest and team ministry.
Three Bishops wanted to discuss opening ordination to the married and the return of priests who left the active ministry to marry. One of the forgoing acknowledged that he not infrequently is asked to consider ordaining women. Many spoke to the crying need for collaborative ministry and educating new priests for empowering the laity, noting that the church will not be well served without effective collaboration.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., summarized the findings of 18 focus groups with priests around the country. "Many say they feel inadequate, stressed and exhausted,'' he said. Blaire quoted one priest as saying, "There are just too many expectations, too much paperwork and not enough ministry.'' Priests also expressed concern about "increased isolation'' and less mentoring from fellow priests.
Results of a telephone survey of some 2500 laity found that 75% admitted to noticing a change in the number of priests available but only 23% said they were affected by it. 75% of laity support expanding the use of lay ministers and deacons and using foreign-born priests. Almost 50% said they supported merging parishes. Significantly the surveys and focus groups were not given options of opening ordination to the married or women. Numerous surveys done by Gallup/National Catholic Reporter and Andrew Greeley over the past 15 years have indicated 2/3 of Catholics support both of these options.
FutureChurch and Call To Action issued a press release at the NCCB conference. In it we called for opening ordination to the married and women rather than close parishes. The statement was picked up and carried by the national AP wire story about the meeting. FutureChurch co-founder Fr. Lou Trivison was quoted: "We're delighted that the U.S. bishops are finally beginning to talk about the critical shortage of priests, but the solutions they are proposing won't solve the problem." Trivison went on to say that closing and merging parishes and increasing the responsibilities of lay ministers and deacons still won't allow Mass to be celebrated at least weekly in every parish or give dying Catholics access to the Sacraments.
On the way out of the meeting I encountered a prayer vigil conducted by the local chapter of the Women's Ordination Conference. Above them circled an airplane dragging a huge banner with the words: "Ordain women to the Roman Catholic priesthood." It is very sad to ignore half of the Catholic population for priestly consideration, not to mention the estimated 20,000 married priests whom could serve immediately.
I wish we didn't have to come to the point of merging parishes and canceling Masses before our Bishops consider married and women priests. These priestly calls deserve to be discerned on their own merits. But for now, I'm glad that the Bishops have at least begun the conversation. One bishop suggested taking the CARA slide presentation into every diocesan pastoral council in the country. I hope they take him up on his suggestion.