Ask anybody and they will tell you that there is a priest shortage. But as with so many things, we hear this so often that we do not think to question if it is, in fact, true. What follows is simply asking that this assumption, which seems so true, be reexamined. It is not a scientific study, just some observations and I invite you to expand upon it.
The benchmark for what the Church should look like for us in the United States is the 1950s. Convents and abbeys were bursting at the seams. Even smaller parishes which today might not merit a priest on its own may have had two. But is this the norm? Was it ever? Were the 1950s an anomaly?
The United States was considered mission territory until the 1920s. Until about 1845 Catholics were a very small minority in here. They tended to be English and well established. From this point, especially with the Irish coming to the United States, Catholics quickly became (and remain) the single largest denomination spanning all classes of society.
As you can imagine this becomes a huge increase in a population that needs to be ministered to by priests. Then throw into this mix those coming from other nations with different language needs and the whole situation in the United States becomes challenging.
Those coming over even from Catholic nations did not necessarily have priests falling all over themselves trying to minister to them in their native lands. There were places that this was the case but not for all of them. I take my family, particularly my father’s family, who rarely attended Mass save for very special days. This was simply the way they experienced Church in Europe. Until relatively recent times with improved roads and a better economy the priest only visited the village once every few months. They did not have a full time priest.
My home parish did not have a permanent pastor at its founding in 1914. This was not all that unusual particularly with the ethnic parishes. There were simply not enough priests to go around. They spent many years as a sort of mission parish with visiting priests from nearby parishes.
In the 1950s a Gallop pole estimated that three out of every four Catholics attended Mass. Let us suppose for a moment that this number remains true through 1965. Here is where we get into it. I invite people to check my math – a subject I have always liked but have never been good at.
According to this site, in 1965 there were 45.6 million Catholics in the United States. At the same time there were 58,632 priests. If we consider that only three quarters of those who were Catholic went to Mass, that means that there was approximately 1 priest for every 584 practicing Catholics. (Gads, I hope my math is correct.)
Now, in 2011 there is a huge uptick in those who are Catholic in the United States. According to the same source there are 65.4 million Catholics here. But the number of priests has dropped to only 39,466. But there has also been a dramatic drop in the number of people who attend Mass on a regular basis – perhaps as little as one quarter. So, if we divide the number of current Catholics by 4 and then divide that number by the number or priests that we have, it comes out to about 414 people per priest. If my reckoning is correct, we actually have a better priest to parishioner ratio.
Of course the next question would be are fewer priest leading fewer people to come to Mass or are fewer people coming to Mass leading to fewer priests? What is a good ratio? Perhaps we are there and just do not realize it. But if this is so why might it not feel like it?
There are a number of possible reasons for this. The first may be the distribution of priests. There are areas of concentration where there are simply more priests. There are some diocese that produce more priests for service to their people. This will throw the ratio off for such a large place as the United States. Inside a diocese the distribution of people can set this off also. Maintaining many parishes in an area with a diminishing Catholic presence will make staffing more and larger parishes in the suburbs more difficult. This is the question of equitable distribution.
Lastly is the idea of what we expect a parish and subsequently a priest to do. The main tasks of a parish is to perform sacraments and to teach. If that is all we did we would be successful parishes. But in the United States we are expected to do much, much more. A parish responsible for all sorts of social programs, outreach, sports, arts, and scores of programs that make priests visiting our nation raise their eyebrows. “You do all that?” How did we get there? There are two factors. The first is the ethnic parish that became the center of their communities and tried to provide for their people all the things that society wouldn’t or couldn’t. The second influence is the Protestant church that provides all kinds of services in order to attract worshipers. The simple Catholic parish saw all this and thought that it had better get on the ball and so started expanding the area of services that it provides.
Life has also become more complicated. The amount of work that is necessitated by government regulations, diocesan mandates, and good business practices require an enormous amount of time not previously needed. For example a parish can no longer just let a volunteer or the parochial vicar run a youth group. Today, priests and volunteers alike must spend time taking classes in how to be around children, have background checks, and participate in continuing updates. Coordinating volunteers so that there are always two people present is a must. There must be files constantly updated for all volunteers that show they are compliant, recruiting of volunteers and sending them off for classes and so forth. And this is just one aspect of one area. All this takes priests away from ministry.
So is there a priest shortage? Maybe. Is there a poor use of resources? Maybe. Have we lost sight of our mission? Maybe. Is it that we just expect more? Maybe. Or it could be a combination of all. I’m not saying stop worrying – worry. If we want to keep doing what we are doing – we need more priests. But if the numbers above are true, does it not seem God is taking care of us even when we don’t see it?