America’s Catholic population is rising by 1 percent annually, but seminary enrollment is flat. An inadequate supply of priests already has forced hundreds of parishes to close or consolidate.
Priests aren’t getting any younger, either. Their average age is 63.
Something’s got to give.
“These people have served the church for 30, 40 or 50 years, and now they are retiring or dying and leaving the priesthood,” said Mary Gautier, senior research associate with Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
In the Diocese of Venice, Fla., though, Bishop Frank Dewane is sitting comfortably for the 59 parishes from Bradenton to Marco Island. Dewane has 111 diocesan priests under his authority, along with 60 priests supplied by religious orders. Additionally, between 10 and 70 outside priests, who often are retirees from parishes up North, assist the diocese on a seasonal or part-time basis.
Dewane’s focus isn’t covering next Sunday’s Mass; he is charged with building the next generation of religious leaders.
“We’re blessed right now, but we always have to look at where are we in, say, 25 years or 50 years out,” Dewane said.
In 1975, there were 58,909 priests in the United States. Today, Georgetown’s CARA puts the figure at 39,600, a 33 percent drop. Meanwhile, America’s Catholic population rose from 54.5 million to 78.2 million, a 43 percent increase, during the same period.
Although the 39,600 priests seems plenty for America’s 17,413 parishes, it’s not. Presiding over Mass is just one of a priest’s duties, along with hearing confessions, baptizing babies, officiating weddings, counseling parishioners, conducting funerals, teaching schoolchildren, blessing hospital patients, running missions and more. On Easter and Christmas, some parishes in Southwest Florida have a half-dozen or more Masses, often simultaneously on church campuses, to accommodate residents, tourists and seasonal residents.
“I don’t know of any bishop who believes he has too many priests,” said the Rev. John Guthrie, associate director for the secretariat of clergy, consecrated life and vocations with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Nationally, Guthrie said, the ratio of priests to parishioners in 1950 was 1 to 652, but that climbed to 1 to 1,653 by 2010. That doesn’t account for the millions of Catholics who are not registered with a parish or regularly attend services.
“There are fewer of us doing more and more work,” Guthrie said. [More]