By now, everyone has heard about the so-called “shortage of priests” and felt the impact of declining number of sacerdotal ordinations. Priests simply are not as visible in the parochial school classroom, next to the sick bed and in the homes of their parish families as they once were. The needs of the flock are being met by fewer shepherds, resulting in fewer services rendered and more activity handed off to others.
The priest maintains the essentials of the office — “essentials” being defined variously by sundry individuals. This is all occurring out of necessity, as a reaction to circumstances and not as a planned shift in the definition of priestly ministry. Ordinations and seminary attendance are back up from the rock-bottom numbers of the 1990s, but the trend is still not adequate to meet the needs of the Church. It is time to begin planning instead of responding.
There are a variety of proposed strategies, some of which are likely to be helpful in some small way and others which are merely stopgaps — bubble gum and duct tape for a crack in the Hoover Dam, if you will.
The real crisis is one of faith and lack of commitment to the telos of the human person: union with God. It is the same crisis that affects our young people in regard to marriage, sexuality, life, and vocations to priesthood and consecrated life. We live in a world that demands a more radical witness to faith than in previous generations. Unless one first has deep faith and desires heaven above all else, he or she will not choose costly discipleship and a vocation of sacrificial service.
Contrariwise, where young people witness the faith in its vibrant fullness, they long for more of the Lord and desire to make of their lives a gift for Him. Witnessing to the infectious splendor of Catholicism is the real solution. Every priest needs to encourage young men to consider priesthood and “take his place” someday, thus fostering the growth we ultimately need in order to thrive as a Church. Praying for and supporting vocations to the priesthood is, in the long-tern, the number one strategy for addressing the priest shortage.
There are still practical needs to be met when reality hits us squarely in the face. When we find ourselves with an inadequate number of priests to fill the number of pastorates and other assignments, parishes have to collaborate, some have to become chapels or oratories, some may even close. Mass times have to be strategically scheduled in a given region to allow for coverage by the priests in that area. Priests may have to be imported from other regions of the world with more success in proclaiming the Gospel and fostering vocations.
(As an aside, it is important to study the number of priests against the number of Catholics in the diocese or province rather than the number of parishes. We are so used to fretting over how to fill assignments that we can forget the more important question of how do we provide a shepherd for the sheep. If the flock is not gathering in the same places, then perhaps the shepherds are not being adequately utilized. On another note, if the declining number of priests is proportionate to the declining number of Catholics in the region, then it is more a question of distribution than shortage. Perhaps there are “enough” priests but they just are not in the right places because we are so accustomed to placing them in certain defined assignments.)
The remnant of the Church we find in many places today still needs tending and feeding, and that task is entrusted to fewer shepherds. One strategy for meeting this need we have just explored is not so innocuous as its name might indicate: “alternative forms of staffing parishes.” The proposed plan (or, in some areas, implemented plan) involves a deacon, religious or lay person administrating the parish, while a “sacramental priest” celebrates the sacraments. Such a concept poses deeply disturbing challenges not found in any other plan for responding to the shortage of priests.
The first flaw is the minimalist language: “staffing.” As a Church, we are concerned with the salvation of souls and the care of human persons, not simply staffing offices. The deeper challenge is how to be more present to the Body of Christ as priests amid the challenges of the 21st century. This is where the “alternate forms of staffing” concept is on the right track. We cannot escape the reality that the priest must divest himself of certain duties in order to be more available to the essential ministry of the salvation of souls. How we walk that delicate balance is critical to the eternal salvation of those entrusted to our care.
‘Administrated’ or ‘Shepherded’
Let us keep in mind that the parish is not simply “administrated,” but rather “shepherded,” as indicated in Canon Law, which defines the parish as “a certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church, whose pastoral care is entrusted to a pastor (parochus) as its proper pastor (pastor) under the authority of the diocesan bishop” and confirms that that “pastor (parochus) is the proper pastor (pastor) of the parish entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan bishop in whose ministry of Christ he has been called to share. . .” (Code of Canon Law, Nos. 517ff).
Therefore, the parish community worships, witnesses and serves in relationship to its shepherd (pastor), who ministers in relationship with his bishop and ultimately with Christ. These bonds form the essence of the community of disciples. As an alter Christus, for the priest being “pastor” is more than an office. It is a call to reveal Jesus to others in a way no other person can because of the priest’s unique configuration to Christ.
Now we come to the second flaw: the reduction of the priest to “sacramental dispenser.” This draws us even deeper into the question of ontology. The Second Vatican Council enunciates the identity of the priest:
The Lord Jesus, “whom the Father has sent into the world” (Jn 10:36) has made his whole Mystical Body a sharer in the anointing of the Spirit with which he himself is anointed. The same Lord, however, has established ministers among his faithful to unite them together in one body in which, “not all the members have the same function” (Rom 12:4).
The office of priests, since it is connected with the episcopal order, also, in its own degree, shares the authority by which Christ builds up, sanctifies and rules his Body. Wherefore the priesthood, while indeed it presupposes the sacraments of Christian initiation, is conferred by that special sacrament; through it priests, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are signed with a special character and are conformed to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head.(10)
The purpose, therefore, which priests pursue in their ministry and by their life is to procure the glory of God the Father in Christ. That glory consists in this: that men working freely and with a grateful spirit receive the work of God made perfect in Christ and then manifest it in their whole lives. Hence, priests, while engaging in prayer and adoration, or preaching the word, or offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice and administering the other sacraments, or performing other works of the ministry for men, devote all this energy to the increase of the glory of God and to man’s progress in the divine life. All of this, since it comes from the Pasch of Christ, will be crowned by the glorious coming of the same Lord, when he hands over the Kingdom to God the Father.(14)
They are to live as good shepherds that know their sheep, and they are to seek to lead those who are not of this sheepfold that they, too, may hear the voice of Christ, so that there might be one fold and one shepherd (21) (Decree on Ministry and Life of Priests, Presbyterorum Ordinis, Nos. 2-3).
The priesthood is not merely functional. Before he performs priestly functions, he experiences an ontological change, a unique identity and relationship to Christ. The ordained priest exercises a ministry established by Christ in which a man is conformed to Christ and acts in the person of Christ the Head. The grace of ordination confers to the priest the triple munera of teaching, governing and sanctifying (munera docendi, gubernandi et sanctificandi). These gifts flow from the identity of Christ as priest, prophet and king, He to whom the ministerial priest is conformed. Therefore, the identity and mission of the priest is complete only when he reveals the whole Christ, only when he exercises the entire triple munera for the glory of God and the sanctification of mankind.
Assigning a priest as a “sacramental priest” with limited duties in a liturgical context limits him to the function of sacramental dispenser. The sanctifying role is divorced from shepherding. The priest in such an assignment is no longer a father to a community and no longer has a voice in the formation of disciples in the parish. He simply shows up for the sacramental celebrations. Since the identity of the priest, the ontology, precedes and makes possible the functions he performs, limiting his role to specific functions violates his identity, causing ripple effects for the individual priest’s life and how the faithful relate to him. He is no longer pastor but an occasional functionary brought out when absolutely necessary.
The Incarnate Jesus Christ incorporated into himself the ancient roles of the cultic priest: the prophet sent to proclaim the Word of God and the king who governed God’s people. To this He added the critical image of the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. The priesthood of Jesus Christ is at the same time “cultic” and characterized by “servant-leadership.”
The ordained priest is the cultic representative of Christ in the offering of the eternal sacrifice. He is also the shepherd who, in the words of Pope Francis, is “not afraid to smell like the sheep.” The priest’s total availability to, and love for, his people — in celebrating the sacraments, spiritual direction, counseling, teaching, administrating and so much more — is the fulfillment of his calling to be Christ for others. Reducing the priest to sacramental functionary ignores the servant-leader dimension of priesthood.
Third, the concept of “sacramental priest” is flawed because the priesthood is built on relationships, and making the priest a sacramental dispenser removes him from a relationship to the faithful. Grounded in his relationship to Jesus Christ, the priest is sent to a community to be a father who builds life-giving relationships with the people in his care. His availability to the people is a fruit of his celibate sacrifice.
In the “sacramental priest” concept, however, the shepherd is charged with feeding a flock he is not tending in other ways and with whom he has not developed a relationship. He would not know the sheep. Preaching would be stifled because effective preaching speaks to the unique character and needs of the community. The “sacramental priest” who has no role in the governance and formation in the parish where he celebrates the sacraments has no relationship as a father or shepherd with the faithful. Such an arrangement risks a dangerous shift in the way the priest is understood within the community — from pastor to one functionary among many.
In addition, the faithful in a parish under a non-priest administrator would not be served well by this rupture in the fundamental relationship of priest to community. The faithful would not know who their proper pastor is. Thus, they would not have a spiritual father to turn to in times of need and crisis in their lives. Young men would be even more distant from models of priesthood who could inspire their vocation. (When I was growing up, our pastors engaged with the people beyond the altar, and that made a significant impact on me.)
Furthermore, no matter how the arrangement is presented to the people, the possibility exists of the priest being viewed as subordinate to the non-priest administrator. A baptized person who is conformed to Christ as a member of the Body of Christ would be placed over the ordained priest who is conformed to Christ the Head. This inverted relationship is an unhealthy one for the faithful, for Christ has given the task of tending the sheep — which is more than dispensing sacraments — to the shepherds.
The people of our parishes would struggle to relate to this corrupted model of parish governance. No matter how well-formed, sincere and committed a religious or lay administrator might be, that individual will never be “Father” or pastor in the eyes of the people of God. While receiving the Eucharist from the hands of a priest at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the source and summit of parish life, my own ministry has shown that the priest is so much more to his people. He is father, co-worker in the truth and fellow disciple on the journey.
All this having been said, it is critical that decisions for our parishes and priests be made out of a true love for the faithful and a clear sense of the relationship between priest and parish. This attitude will prove to be far more effective and rewarding than simply reacting to circumstances and providing for the dispensing of sacraments. While the sacraments and preaching are the tasks that “only a priest can do,” the priest is not meant to be reduced to the bare minimum. He is called to offer his whole self in carrying out all three gifts of the ordained ministry — sanctifying, governing and teaching.
Relationships with the Faithful
Therefore, the best approach to the challenge of a shortage of priests is one that maximizes the impact of the priest in relationships with the faithful — relationships that form disciples, deepen others’ relationship to Jesus and inspire vocations. Maximizing the priest’s impact on the community is a model that fosters growth all the while preserving the complete identity of the priest and his relationship to the faithful.
This approach means re-imagining the structure of the staff who collaborate with the pastor, rather than the ministry of the priest himself. For example, a priest may be assigned as a pastor of four parishes (which may include chapels and oratories), spending part of one weekday each week in each parish office or working from a central office, celebrating Mass in each parish church during the week and once in each parish church on the weekend (Saturday evening/Sunday) and devoting the vast majority of his time to encounters with the faithful (e.g., sick calls, weddings, marriage preparation, counseling, parish activities, funerals, adult faith classes, etc.). The schedule will vary from place to place but the core model remains the same: the priest is truly pastor to the faithful. He teaches them, he governs them, he sanctifies them.
Another option is a pastor and parochial vicar living in one rectory and managing several parishes in a larger metropolitan area. To accomplish this, every pastor will need to depend on a well-formed staff of professionals trained in areas of finance, plant management and human resources as well as ecclesiastical and diocesan procedures. Ideally, the parish offices would operate efficiently while the priest is being pastor to the people. A diocese of 80 parishes, for example, facing a future of being served by 35 priests could meet the needs of the faithful while maintaining the identity of the priest as pastor if each pastor were served by staff who could manage the business operations of the parish.
In conclusion, we have explored the fundamental flaws in the “sacramental priest” model, namely, the misconception of “parish” on which it depends, the stripping away of the full identity of the priest and the undermining of the relationship between flock and shepherd. Instead of proposing ways of minimizing the priest, we need to be open to new ways of assisting the priest so he can maintain his full role and maximize his irreplaceable impact on the people of God. This means an investment of time and resources in forming competent and service-oriented staff people who are willing to assist their pastors in fulfilling his call from God to save souls.
FATHER ALBRIGHT is a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, Ohio, and pastor of Our Lady of Victory in Andover and St. Patrick in Kinsman, Ohio. He was ordained in 2007 by Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., having earned a B.A. from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and an M.A. and M.Div. from Saint Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.