Is there a priest shortage? What is being done to address shortages where they occur? What can be done to increase the number of candidates for ordination?
There is some debate as to what constitutes a priest shortage. Some compare current ratios of priests to faithful with ratios from other eras, though some say that demand for priests has diminished to the point that the ratios are not comparable. Others contend that "priest shortage" is a slogan used by those who seek structural change in the Church. Apart from how "shortage" is defined, though, in some parts of the world the faithful acutely feel a need for priests.
The Church is addressing shortages on both the universal and local level. Vatican II (1962-65) treated the issue of fostering vocations in Optatam Totius, the decree on the training of priests. The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, issued an apostolic exhortation in 1992 entitled Pastores Dabo Vobis ("I Will Give You Shepherds") which likewise addresses the issue. The brunt of the work, however, falls to the local bishop, who has the responsibility to apply these teachings and find co-laborers for Christ in his own diocese. In a diocese experiencing a priest shortage, the bishop must both provide the faithful with the spiritual goods of the Church and also uphold the essential identity and function of his pastors and their parishes.
While there may be shortage of priests in some areas, there is no shortage of vocations. The general fostering of vocations among the faithful is necessary before the seminaries can be filled. The faithful should also actively seek the spiritual goods (sacraments) of the Church, which are primarily administered by priests.
Priest shortages undeniably exist in some regions of the world. It would therefore be more accurate to speak of specific priest shortages rather than a general priest shortage. What constitutes a priest shortage is disputed, but there are three distinct areas of discussion. Some attempt to measure shortages by the use of ratios. Ratios can be helpful, but they are not an absolute standard. As it happens, the faithful are demanding fewer services from priests compared with 50 years ago, allowing each priest to serve a great number of the faithful. Further, more sparsely populated areas need more priests per capita because of the travel time. Ratios also do not usually reflect differences among neighboring dioceses. Yet, they can be helpful. In a recent report, the U.S. bishops used ratios to indicate a priest shortage:
The number of priests has not kept up with Church growth . . . 82 percent of dioceses and eparchies report that they have fewer priests relative to their needs compared to a decade ago. The shortage is most reported in the Midwest and the West, and least reported in the Northeast and the South. For example, the ratio of priests to people in 1900 was approximately 1:900. In 1950 the ratio was approximately 1:650. In 1999, the ratio was approximately 1:1200. The 1940s and 1950s saw a significant increase in the number of priests, but the years since have been something of a balancing out as the century came to a close (U.S. Bishops executive summary of The Study of the Impact of Fewer Priests on the Pastoral Ministry).
The report noted that of the four regions, the West has the least favorable ratio, at 1:1752. Also of interest is that priests are older on average, yet live longer.
Ratio comparisons aside, shortages are recognized by Church authorities. The Holy Father, in Pastores Dabo Vobis, recognized that Christ's promise to give the Church shepherds was a cause for thanksgiving in some places and for hope in others:
By faith we know that the Lord's promise cannot fail. This very promise is the reason and force underlying the Church's rejoicing at the growth and increase of priestly vocations now taking place in some parts of the world. It is also the foundation and impulse for a renewed act of faith and fervent hope in the face of the grave shortage of priests which is being felt in other parts of the world (no. 1).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in their 1992 document on the priest shortage, was more general in its comments, calling the shortage "a reality affecting the faithful in this country."
Apart from objective measures and observations, the priest shortage is a subjective reality. If a Catholic feels the need for a priest, but cannot find one, there is a priest shortage. These pressures are most acutely felt in parish families that have lost their identity through consolidation with other parishes (ironically, forming a new parish with a new name while the church building itself dedicated to a particular saint retains its name). Individuals who tend to feel priest shortages most acutely are the elderly and shut-ins who need priests to "make the rounds" with the spiritual goods of the Church Confession, Communion, and Anointing of the Sick. But also those who seek to foster their own spiritual life through the direction of a priest must look farther, sometimes hours away, before finding a priest who has the time and the ability.
Thus, while the definition of a "priest shortage" may be open to discussion, the reality of the need for more priests is not seriously in dispute. It can be said that the Universal Church may not have a priest shortage, but that many particular Churches do. What is being done about priest shortages?
While the Vatican has not issued any statements specifically addressing priest shortages, the Church's teachings regarding the general vocation to holiness provide sufficient matter for an increase in ordinations (see CUF's Faith Fact, "Vocations in Christ"). In addition, the Church's decrees on the priesthood and the formation of priests provide an important blueprint for directing young men with vocations (see Pastores Dabo Vobis and Optatum Totius). These are intended to provide guidance in all aspects of priestly formation from fostering vocations to seminary training. In focusing on the fostering of vocations and the formation of candidates for the priesthood, the Vatican has excluded the possibility of women's ordination and relaxing the discipline of priestly celibacy.
The Holy See has also provided guidance as to what can be done now as interim measures to compensate for a perceived shortage. In particular, canon law protects the relationship between pastors and their flocks and identifies the functions of each. More recently, the 1997 Instruction on the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Ministry of Priests, issued through the collaboration of eight offices of the Holy See and approved by the Holy Father, sought both to affirm and in some respects limit the role of the laity in assisting priests.
Handling priest shortages in practical terms is the problem of particular Churches. Priests are the helpers of the individual bishops. The bishop oversees the diocesan seminary and ordains and incardinates (enrolls) priests in his see. While all priests may celebrate the Mass, bishops grant faculties for priests to hear Confessions and dispense other sacraments. The bishop decides which parishes receive assistant priests. In places where there are shortages, the bishop must decide how to deploy his work force. He has to be creative without compromising on the function of the ordained ministry. There are several options a bishop may consider.
Twinning is the least painful for a parish, which retains its identity, both pastorally and administratively, while sharing a pastor with a nearby parish. While one parish retains its pastor, the other gets a new pastor a transition that every parish must go through at one time or another. Further, the parishioners of the nearby parish often already know the new pastor. Because they share a pastor, cooperation between parishes can increase.
Similar to twinning is clustering, the grouping of three or more parishes. This is a more drastic measure that raises significant issues. A priest simply cannot celebrate five Masses every Sunday. Each Sunday one or more parishes do without Mass and the faithful either assist at another parish or participate in a Eucharistic celebration without a Mass. Here the non-ordained are more likely to serve in pastoral roles associated with the ordained ministry. As clustering is marked by a weakening of the parish's association with its own ordained pastor, some bishops have dispensed with the function of parish pastor altogether, instead creating a team of priests who serve a number of parishes. Unfortunately, this diminished role of the ordained priest in the eyes of the faithful is sometimes accompanied by an overreaching of the laity in administrative and pastoral ministries.
While twinning and clustering preserve individual parishes at the expense of the pastors who are thinly stretched, consolidation and decommissioning (deconsecrating) retain the pastor-parish relationship by simply dissolving parishes that do not have pastors. With consolidation, two or more parishes lose their identity and merge into one new parish. With decommissioning, a parish is dissolved and the faithful find another parish to meet their needs. The transition through either is painful, as it means the death of a parish, with many generations of tradition and strong family identity falling by the wayside. It is not difficult to sympathize with parishioners who may feel as though their parish was arbitrarily or even unjustly chosen as one to be consolidated or decommissioned.
A priest shortage makes change inevitable. As with all unwanted change, the challenge is to retain as much of the good as possible while accepting limitations. In this case, some goods may be provided only by the priest, while at the same time, his role will be limited in other areas. Each faith community must adjust to the priest's diminished role, making use of the laity, but without blurring the essential distinction between lay and clerical roles. To this end, the Magisterium provides guidance that preserves the spiritual fatherhood of the priest on the one hand and empowers the laity in appropriate ways on the other:
[T]he diverse functions proper to ordained ministers form an indivisible unity and cannot be understood if separated, one from the other. Rather they must be viewed in terms of mutual correspondence and complementarity. Only in some of these functions, and to a limited degree, may the non-ordained faithful cooperate with their pastors should they be called to do so by lawful Authority and in accordance with the prescribed manner (1997 Instruction, no. 2).
With regard to teams of priests, canon law requires that one of the priests direct the pastoral care and be answerable to the bishop as a pastor would. If a bishop decides to use a deacon or lay person in pastoral ministry, that person must be under the direction of a priest (Code of Canon Law, canon 517). These structures, however, may only be used in exceptional circumstances, "not for reasons of convenience or advancement of the laity." The participation of a lay person in pastoral ministry must be a participation only, "not directing, coordinating, moderating or governing the parish; these competencies, according to the canon, are the competencies of the priest alone" (ibid. , no. 4).
Mindful of the danger of blurring essential distinctions between the ministries of the ordained and non-ordained, the Church has prohibited lay persons from assuming titles such as "pastor," "chaplain," "coordinator," and "moderator" (ibid. , no. 1). Further, bishops are asked to employ retired priests before resorting to using lay persons.
While there are shortages of priests, there are no shortages of vocations. Because of the irreplaceable role of the priest, there should be no plan of handling a priest shortage that does not include a commitment to fostering vocations. Increasing the number of candidates to the priesthood involves the whole diocese, with each member of the Body doing his part.
The bishop has much he can do to foster vocations. There are some dioceses in this country that are not experiencing priest shortages, or at least have experienced a significant increase in candidates for ordination. Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, provides a formula:
When dioceses and religious communities are unambiguous about ordained priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these calls; when there is strong support for vocations, and a minimum of dissent about the male celibate priesthood and religious life loyal to the Magisterium; when bishop, priest, religious, and lay people are united in vocation ministry then there are documented increases in the numbers of candidates who respond to the call.
While bishops, priests, and those in religious life can directly influence the number of candidates to the priesthood, the laity must also foster vocations. Vatican II identifies as principal contributors "the families which, animated by the spirit of faith and love and by the sense of duty, become a kind of initial seminary" (Optatam Totius, no. 2). Families are called to be domestic churches where the general call to holiness is fostered, where children begin to develop in piety, prayer, and love for the Church (cf. Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 41; Catechism, nos. 2230-33). The parish is also considered a primary contributor in fostering vocations. Young people should find an abundant and vibrant parish life in which they can participate. The laity also serve the parish as catechists and teachers (cf. Catechism, no. 2226).
Supply and Demand
The role of the laity in fostering vocations can be expressed in terms of supply and demand. Supply is readily seen. Families and communities look upon their children as gifts from God, entrusted to their stewardship. In faith they "produce" holy men and women who love God and the Church. If one child should have a particular vocation to the priesthood, the family returns the young man to the care of the Master. Shortages would be greatly reduced if more families and parishes fostered vocations.
How can the demands of the laity influence a priest shortage? If the laity were to place a higher value on the priesthood and priestly service, more young men would consider the priesthood. Instead, the faithful are frequenting the sacraments less often. There is irregular participation in Sunday Masses, fewer Confessions, more marriages outside of the Church, and fewer anointings. Increased secularization in this country has led to decreased demand for spiritual goods that priests offer. The Holy Father recognized this in Pastores Dabo Vobis:
Furthermore, despite the fall of ideologies which had made materialism a dogma and the refusal of religion a program, there is spreading in every part of the world a sort of practical and existential atheism which coincides with a secularist outlook on life and human destiny. The individual, "all bound up in himself, this man who makes himself not only the center of his every interest, but dares to propose himself as the principle and reason of all reality," finds himself ever more bereft of that "supplement of soul" which is all the more necessary to him in proportion as a wide availability of material goods and resources deceives him about his self-sufficiency. There is no longer a need to fight against God; the individual feels he is simply able to do without him (no. 7).
As the faithful dismiss God from the center of their lives, they no longer seek the life of grace that is fed by the sacraments. Part of fostering vocations includes a promotion of the sacraments and thereby the value of the ordained priesthood.
Trusting in God's Promise
Finally, there must be prayer and trust in the providence of God. Perpetual adoration of the Eucharist has been associated with an increase in candidates for ordination. As with all petitions to God, prayers for more priests can be accompanied by acts of penance. Finally, we trust in God and preserve a hope that he will send the priests that we need:
Everyone is called upon to share complete trust in the unbroken fulfillment of God's promise, which the synod fathers expressed in clear and forceful terms: "The synod, with complete trust in the promise of Christ who has said: 'Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age' (Mt. 28:20), and aware of the constant activity of the Holy Spirit in the Church, firmly believes that there will never be a complete lack of sacred ministers in the Church. Even though in a number of regions there is a scarcity of clergy, the action of the Father, who raises up vocations, will nonetheless always be at work in the Church" (Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 1).
Holy Bible (Catholic edition)
Documents of Vatican II
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Pope John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis
Leon J. Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel
Msgr. Timothy M. Dolan, Priests for the Third Millennium
Faith Facts. "I Will Give You Shepherds: Addressing the Priest Shortage." Lay Witness (May/June 2003).
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.