Average parish

Fr. Peter Daly

June 15, 2011

Parish Diary


Fr. Peter Daly talks about a CARA study on parish size and how it reflects on his average size parish.


            It is good to be average.  At least, I used to think so.

My parish is almost precisely average, in terms of size.

We have 1162 registered households. The U.S. national average in 2010 was 1167. That is according to a study done by the Center for Applied Research and the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, funded by the Lilly Endowment.

If we could just get five more households, we would be precisely the average sized Catholic parish.

According to the CARA study, the average parish grew from 855 families in the year 2000 to 1167 in 2010. Again, my parish tracked the average growth exactly.  We had about 800 families at the turn of the millennium.     

Why are Catholic parishes growing?

There are two reasons: population growth and parish closures.

The frightening factor is the huge reduction in the number of parishes. CARA says that from 2000 to 2010, there was 6.6% reduction in the number of Catholic parishes in the U.S. In the same time period there was an 8.5% increase in Catholic population. More people go to fewer and bigger parishes.

The Official Catholic Directory listed 19,431 parishes in 2004. Five years later, it listed 18, 674 parishes. That means that 757 parishes closed in just five years.

From what I can observe, parishes tend to be closing in the Northeast and Midwest and opening in the South and West. I have friends in Iowa, Maine, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who are all pastoring more than one parish or a consolidated parish formed from several smaller ones that were closed. I also have friends in Florida and the Carolinas who are pastoring huge new parishes. 

In our area, the middle Atlantic state of Maryland, we are experiencing more population growth than parish closures. No parish nearby has closed, but we have a mini boom in population because of the expansion of the nearby Navy base.

My parish is also average in the number of masses celebrated.  The number of masses is increasing.

Just over half of U.S. parishes (51%) offer four or more Saturday vigil/Sunday masses in English. We have four Sunday masses in English. A decade ago, most parishes did not offer 4 or more Sunday masses.

Increasingly, U.S. parishes also offer at least one mass in a language other than English, most commonly (22%) in Spanish.  We follow the trend exactly. We offer a fifth Sunday mass in Spanish.  

According to the CARA study, 92% of the parishes in the U.S. have a priest on staff. This means that an incredible 8% of U.S. parishes are now without a priest.

But more and more parishes have a permanent deacon. Our parish has two permanent deacons and two men in training to be deacons. Today, 41% of U.S. parishes have a permanent deacon. The number of permanent deacons is increasing while the number of priests continues to decrease.

I could not live without our deacons and deacons in training and their wives.

According to CARA, the number of diocesan priests declined 25.3% in the 25 years from 1985 to 2009. In the next 25 years, from 2010 to 2035, it is projected that the number will decline even faster, by 34.5%.  There were 29,483 diocesan priests in the U.S. in 2009. In 25 years, the number will be 12,520 according to CARA.

So my parish is average today.

If we remain average over the next 25 years, we will probably see many more people in the pews, more Sunday masses celebrated, in more languages, and, eventually, no resident priest.

If I am still alive in 25 years, I will not want to be average.