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Priest Shortage Threatens Parish Life

Parish life as we have known it is changing dramatically. Dioceses throughout the U.S. and Europe are reconfiguring parishes because of the priest shortage, even as numbers of Catholics are on the increase. Presently 75% of 18,000 active diocesan priests in the U.S. are over 55 years old, but we are only ordaining about 300 men each year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that in 20 years we will have only 13,500 diocesan priests for our 19,000 parishes, not nearly enough to provide Eucharist and pastoral ministry to Catholics whose numbers have increased by 20 million in the last 40 years.

How are we to minister in a time of fewer priests?  Dioceses are responding in many different ways.   In England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor asked parishes to consider whether they wished to close, merge, be adopted by a larger parish or “cluster” with one or more other parishes.  Prominently featured was a proposal to have full time lay ministers live in rectories and permitted pastoral care as provided for by Canon 517.2. Keeping viable parish communities together is an important value for Cardinal O’Connor along with providing sacramental ministry.

Over the past 20 years, U.S. Bishops in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Albany, Seattle, Baltimore and Los Angeles have issued pastoral documents aimed at keeping parishes together. They support entrusted the pastoral care of parishes to lay ecclesial ministers, deacons and religious.  A nonresident priest serves as the canonical pastor and other priests provide sacramental ministry. Such an arrangement, while certainly not optimal, respects the integrity of the parish community. Right now, an estimated 3,000 U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest. A parish life coordinator provides pastoral care in six hundred of them and the remaining parishes are served by a “circuit riding” priest or pastoral team headed by a priest. An estimated 30,000 lay ecclesial ministers are working at least part time in parishes, helping to create vital parish communities.

Viable Parishes Closed.
Some U.S. dioceses are closing viable parishes rather than empowering lay ministers and deacons. In 2004, the Boston archdiocese chose to close 83 parishes and the Toledo diocese elected to close 28. In each diocese, a significant number of viable parishes were slated to merge or close even though they had active lay leadership and important outreach ministries. A number of the targeted parishes were in poor areas, where they provided stability and important ministries to needy neighborhoods.  The shortage of priests and “changing demographics” were given as reasons. There is evidence however, in this time of clergy sex abuse lawsuits, that real estate values also figured into the decision. Unfortunately, decisions were made either with minimal consultation of involved parishioners (Boston) or with minimal attention to recommendations made by a diocesan consultation process (Toledo).

Naturally enough, this led to hurt, anger and vigorous resistance on the part of many Catholics. In Toledo, parishioners at Holy Rosary parish and St. James in Kansas, Ohio appealed to the Vatican. Representatives from eight other parishes formed a new group “United Parishes” to figure out ways of avoiding the closures.

In Boston, parishioners at 21 parishes planned 24-hour prayer vigils and engaged in canonical or civil appeals to keep their parishes open. After many months, the Archdiocese reversed closures for eight parishes. Five others are still vigil and have appealed to the Apostolic Signatura in Rome.  A number are pursuing lawsuits.  The reaction in Boston led the Burlington, VT  diocese to stop  planned closures based on the Boston model.

In March, the Archdiocese of New York announced plans to close 31 parishes and 14 schools, the most sweeping reorganization in its 150-year history. Many parishioners interviewed by the New York Times vowed to fight the process. The Church of the Nativity, where Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day worshipped for many years, is on the list of closings. Nativity has many volunteer ministries, including a soup kitchen that feeds 200 people every Saturday. The archdiocese discouraged efforts to save the parish, saying that it attracted “fewer than 400 people” for Sunday Mass.  (Ed note: 400 worshipers would be considered a large community in many Protestant churches.)

Priest Shortage No Reason to Close Parishes.
According to the well-known canon lawyer, Fr. James Coriden, “A shortage of priests for pastoral leadership is not an adequate reason to suppress or combine parishes.  Canon law strongly recommends liturgies of the word and group prayer in the absence of priests (c1248.2), clearly implying that the life and worship of the community must continue even when priestly leadership is absent.”  Canons 516.2 and 517.2 say the pastoral care of a parish may be entrusted to others such as lay ministers or deacons.  Coriden is a professor at Washington Theological Union and the author of The Parish in Catholic Tradition: History, Theology and Canon Law (Paulist 1997).

For the past 16 years, FutureChurch has encouraged Church leadership to open ordination to all those called to it by God and the people of God.  We will continue promoting this discussion until our leaders finally realize that the Eucharist is more important to Catholic life than an exclusively male celibate priesthood.

In the meantime, we must do what we can to constructively encourage faithful Catholics to assume appropriate responsibility for the future of our parishes, and of our church.

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Summer 2006

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