American Catholics have had it good.
Although experts have been warning of a looming shortage of Catholic priests, and although the number of Catholic priests and the percentage of Catholic priests to the overall Catholic population have both been falling, most Catholics say that it hasn’t really affected them.
Some of this may be that people simply aren’t connecting the dots: parish consolidations. An increasing number of foreign-born priests. Sharing priests with other parishes.
But some of it may also be that the Church has worked hard to protect most Catholics from feeling the shortage of priests. In fact, one priest friend of Our Sunday Visitor noted that the Church has done itself no favors by making sure that the average Catholic is barely impacted by the declining numbers. There is still an impressive array of weekend Masses, and priests labor mightily to anoint the sick, officiate at weddings and bury the dead. Deacons are helping too. But this may be about to change.
Projections strongly suggest that half of all currently active priests will retire in the next 10 years (See In Focus, Page 9). That means we may drop below 20,000 priests (we currently have about 40,000) by 2020, even while the Catholic population continues to grow. By 2035, when children born today will be thinking about marriage, there may only be about 12,520 active diocesan priests.
Such projections are all based on current trends, of course, and trends can change. While the rate of retirements is pretty much unavoidable, we could see a significant increase in vocations, as well as a greater reliance on foreign-born priests. Right now there are a number of dioceses where 25-50 percent of their priests are foreign born. That percentage could become much more common as well.
But, say the numbers don’t change. Say the projections are correct. What will that mean for lay Catholics? As the number of Catholics per priest increases, and the number of parishes declines to pre-Korean War levels, will we be ready to make the sacrifices necessary to be active in the faith?
Here is a hypothetical: What if the five or six nearest parishes to you were closed, or you saw a priest only once every 6-8 weeks. Would you be willing to drive an hour or more to get to a Mass on Sunday? Would you make the same effort to get your children to a religious education class or a Catholic school? What if the priest you saw most frequently you had to share not just with 500 or 600 families, but with 4,000, 5,000 or more?
These are some of the challenges facing us as we stand on the precipice. For many years now, the Catholic laity has been increasingly vocal about what the Church can do for them: It should offer all manner of services. It should be flexible. It should provide day care and preschool and inspiring religious education classes and good preaching, or they’ll go somewhere else.
We are fast approaching a time when we must ask ourselves what we can do to help the Church. Will we give the time, talent and treasure to keep parishes open and staffed? Will we take greater responsibility for the formation of our young and the inspiration of our peers? Will we feel a personal commitment to talk about vocations with our children? Or will too many of us simply drift away because the Church isn’t convenient? Mass isn’t local? There’s no priest to visit grandma in the hospital? The mega-church down the block offers more?
This could be the beginning of something extraordinary, but only if Catholics are willing to stand up and be counted when the priest shortage hits home. And the time to stand up is now.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor