Expectations

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

Dec. 13, 2000

 

Looking around the room at all the gray heads, hunched shoulders, and halting walks, I said to the young priest across the table from me, “E.J., whatever motivated you to join this geriatric society.”

His response, of course, was, “God.”

E. J. is a faith filled man and one of our finest young priests.  He is made all the more valuable because he is so rare.

“Topic A” at most priest gatherings these days is the declining number of priests and the increasing age of those who remain.  When this is coupled with a continually increasing number of Catholics who have rather high expectations of their clergy, the future looks problematic.

 Not all the news is bad.  Admissions to seminaries have stabilized and even increased slightly, though they are still only a third of what they were 35 years ago. Resignations from the priesthood have slowed.  The National Catholic Register reports that ex-priests are coming back to the ministry at the rate of about 300 per year.  The crowded seminaries of the third world are beginning to send priests to our shores. The Josephites, who work primarily in African American parishes, now bring seminarians from Africa. 

There is new effort to recruit young men to priesthood.  “Project Andrew” dinners and “Come and See” retreats are efforts to ask more directly.  These efforts do have at least a short-term benefit.  In our parish, for instance, I invited 21 young men to come to a dinner to discuss a priestly vocation.  Four said yes.  That was the most of any parish in the diocese.

Despite the occasional bright spots, however, the data shows that the number of priests is declining. Even with immigration of foreign priests, returning former priests, and slowing resignations, deaths and retirements are outpacing any gains.

            According to the Nov. 4, 2000, issue of America magazine, the number of active diocesan priests has declined by 346 per year for the last five years, just a little less than one per day.  In nearly every diocese in America, the number of deaths and resignations each year exceeds the number of ordinations.

The total number of diocesan priests, active and retired, is shrinking. It has declined from 32,992 in 1990 to 30,034 in 1999.  By the year 2005, it is forecast to be 27,940.  All of this while our Catholic population grows at a rate of over one million people per year.  By the year 2005 there will be fewer priests than there are parishes nationwide.

Most priests can’t retire until age 70, but even with that late date the number retiring is increasing every year. In my own diocese, by my count, 21 of the 319 priests listed in our year 2000 directory are age 80 or older.  Seventy of the 319 are retired.

At the beginning of this new millennium of Christian life, the continuance of the Eucharistic celebration is a real concern.  What will happen 20 years from now if things do not change?

Whenever I have a conversation with young men about the possibility of priesthood I hear the same remark.  “Father, I would think about it except for the requirement of celibacy.”  Over the years I have been a defender of celibacy as a spiritually valuable discipline and an important witness.  But the Eucharist and preaching the gospel are more valuable.

Perhaps we should make an effort in prayer and recruiting into the celibate priesthood for another five years.  If things do not turn around by 2005, it could be that the Holy Spirit is telling us something.

Maybe then we should consider adopting the model of our sister churches of the East and allow married men to be ordained to serve as parish priests.

I love the priesthood and the Eucharist.  I want to see both continue to grace the world into the next millennium.