August 12, 2011


Fewer priests, more Masses

We hope you read the story we published in the July 22 issue of The Criterion headlined “Report finds fewer priests celebrating more Masses at fewer parishes” because the data in that article are important for the future of the Catholic Church in this country.

It’s not that any of you, our readers, would be surprised by the headline. By coincidence, Catholic News Service sent that story to Catholic periodicals the same week that we reported the planned closing of four parishes in the Terre Haute Deanery.

The article reported on the latest study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) on behalf of no less than five national Catholic organizations that are concerned about the Church’s future. I was a member of CARA’s board of directors from 1978 to 1985.

Those five organizations are working on a project called Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership. It is being funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment.

It is hardly a secret that we have fewer priests today, even though we have more Catholics, and that those priests have more responsibilities. Every time the official appointments appear on page 2 of The Criterion, readers see that individual priests are sometimes assigned additional parishes or as pastors of large parishes without associate pastors.

Even though the number of deacons increases every year, the total number of priests, deacons, and men and women religious in the United States declined 41 percent in the 30 years from 1980 to 2010.

With fewer priests and parishes, those priests are celebrating more Masses. But that’s hardly all that they are doing. They must be leaders of their parishes, meet with engaged couples and perform their weddings, plan and conduct funerals, visit the sick in their homes or health care centers, and hear confessions. They also meet with the parish staff, parish council and finance committee.

Then they have additional responsibilities as members of archdiocesan committees, perhaps as heads of ministries or diocesan offices or as volunteer staff members of the Metropolitan Tribunal. Seventeen priests serve in these roles.

Obviously, our priests couldn’t do all this without laypeople helping them. That is another way that things have changed in our parishes, and will change even more in the future. The CARA study reported that the average parish now has 9.5 staff members, some more and some less, of course, depending upon the size of the parish.

Of those 9.5 staff members, 5.4 people are in ministry positions. This reflects the increase in the number of lay ecclesial ministers, those who have studied specifically for those roles. In parish life, examples are the pastoral associate, parish catechetical leader, youth ministry leader, and director of liturgy or pastoral music. Deacons are not included because they are members of the clergy, not lay.

There are now approximately 38,000 lay ecclesial ministers in U.S. parishes, and about 790 additional lay ecclesial ministers are being added every year.

The CARA study found that the average number of registered households in each U.S. parish grew to 1,168. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis, though, is far from that number. With 83,465 households in our 151 parishes, our average is only 553.

The report stated that the average number of individuals registered in U.S. parishes in 2010 was 3,277. For the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, with a Catholic population of 224,926 as of June 30, 2010, the average was only 1,618.

The study also reported that one-third of all U.S. parishes have more than 1,201 registered households. Only 15 of the parishes in our archdiocese have more than 1,201 households—under 11 percent.

The percentage of parishes with 200 or fewer households dropped from 24 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2010 throughout the United States. In our archdiocese, it is 35 percent. Forty-nine parishes have 200 or fewer households.

One interesting figure in the study is that smaller parishes have higher Mass attendance than larger parishes.

Furthermore, “Although Mass attendance has declined in the long term since the 1950s, there has been no recent decline or increase in attendance in the last decade,” the report said.

All this seems to indicate that the Archdiocese of Indianapolis has not yet been forced to close or consolidate as many parishes as many other dioceses in the United States.

—John F. Fink

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