Inching toward the cliff

I love to give visitors tours of the Our Sunday Visitor building. It never fails to surprise how big a space we need to accommodate all that we do here. I always end the tour with a visit to the Holy Spirit Chapel. It is a fitting last stop, a reminder of what ultimately drives us to do the work we do.

Not only are we blessed to have a chapel, a place to pray before the Blessed Eucharist, but we are doubly blessed to have Msgr. Owen Campion. When he is not on the road, Msgr. Campion says daily Mass for employees and guests.

I recently gave such a tour for a friend, and she commented on how fortunate we were to have daily Mass, when in many parts of the world it is an unimaginable luxury. I had never thought of our blessing as an extravagance, but she reminded me of those villages and communities where a priest is likely to visit a few times a year, and the people wait for his coming to celebrate weddings, first Communions and confirmations.

It isn’t just Our Sunday Visitor that’s been blessed. As a nation, we have in most parts of the country enjoyed an abundance of priests for many decades. But the experience of some of our mission dioceses, and the experience of many of our Eastern-rite brothers and sisters, may soon be a more common experience for us all.

The demographic squeeze is on, and the last big group of priests who were ordained in the 1960s is heading to retirement. While signs look good for a resurgence of vocations — should present trends continue — we are likely to face some tough days ahead as we wait for ordinations to catch up with the population.

In the meantime? Many dioceses will be filling their ranks with foreign-born priests. The growing number of deacons is certainly helping. We will be seeing more circuit-riding priests who will cover multiple parishes. Sunday Masses may rotate, forcing people to travel greater lengths to attend. Daily Mass may be an occasional offering, not a regular occurrence, for more people.

For reasons that reflect population shifts as well as shortages, we will also see more parish closures and mergers. These numbers are growing, especially in big archdioceses. Laypeople may be frustrated that the parish they grew up in is being shuttered, but the reality is one of vocations and stewardship. The bishop must decide how best to use his thinning resources.

This won’t be true everywhere, of course. A few dioceses are flush with priests, and others are benefiting from the fruits of the vocation harvest in Africa and India. And vocation numbers, especially in medium-sized dioceses, are trending upward.

But the question we must ask ourselves is what we will do if we are expected to drive greater distances to attend Mass, or we lose the opportunity for regular daily Mass, or we celebrate sacraments such as confirmation in much larger groups?

For now, we need, first and foremost, to pray for vocations. Vocations have a certain viral effect. My home parish went for years without a seminarian. Then one came along. Now in short order we have four. Vocations beget more vocations.

Second, we laity will need to step up. Priests won’t be able to do everything, so we will need them to do what no one else can. We in turn will need to assume greater roles in administration, catechesis and stewardship. This can’t just be that omnipresent 10 percent who always volunteer. This means all of us will have to step up.

If we rise to the occasion, we may find a blessing in the inconvenience. Priests may function more as the servants of the servants of God, and the servants of God may start acting as if they have responsibility for the Church, too. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.