Last week’s column gave background numbers for priestly ministry in the U.S. as we’ve known it over the past forty years. Today I’d like to talk more personally about the impact of those numbers, on me and on the parishes I’ve served.
The first parish I served in was St. Patrick in Bay Shore (1972-80). At the time there were three of us on staff (pastor and two associates, of whom I was one); two retired priests in residence and helping out; and three priests from other ministries coming to assist on weekends – eight, total. I then went to university chaplaincy, where another priest and I were responsible for ministry on campus (1980-88). When the diocese could no longer supply two priests for that work, I was returned to parish life in St. Hugh in Huntington Station. I was one of three associates there, plus the pastor, for five years (1988-93). In 1993 I was assigned there as pastor, but no other priest was assigned in my place and the priest-staff was reduced. I moved to Our Lady of Grace in 2005, where we’ve had three priests on staff since then.
As you can imagine, the workload increased as priests became fewer. But for me the key thing was that I was able to come to know fewer and fewer parishioners on anything more than a superficial level. I don’t have local numbers, but you may remember from last week that when I was ordained the national ratio was about 800 parishioners for each priest; now it’s over 2,800. In Our Lady of Grace there are three priests and over 19,500 names in the parish census. (Factoid: There’s a finding in anthropology that the maximum number of people one person can have stable social relationships with is around 150 – it’s called “Dunbar’s number.” No wonder so many Catholics feel “lost in the crowd,” and so many drift away.)
This is what that change in ratio has meant for me personally: When I was first ordained, beyond sacramental obligations I met weekly with the youth group and folk group; I helped lead retreats for young people; I counseled individuals and couples; I co-led pre-marriage and pre-baptismal courses; I taught adult-education classes regularly in the parish and beyond; I visited people in the hospital and nursing home and made monthly Communion calls on shut-ins. The pastor assigned me a bit of administrative responsibility (scheduling and liturgy), and still with all that I had time to go back to school to get my Ph.D.
The work of an associate is admittedly different from that of a pastor, but even as I wrote the above list I was amazed at the number of things I no longer have time for. At this point I’d say my time is spent 60% on administration, 35% on sacraments, and 5% on individual pastoral care. I recognize that good administration is a key service to parishioners indirectly, and I don’t mind doing it, but consider this:
Our situation has a role in the vocational decisions of young people: If the priest is a distant and occasional figure whose life and work are so remote as to be almost unknown, why should a young person consider priesthood as a potential way of life? As priests get fewer and older, inevitably there’s less and less connection with young people, so what could be an inviting possibility remains largely unknown. And the destructive spiral continues as vocations to the priesthood decline.
If there were an easy fix to our situation, everyone would already be doing it and things would be getting better. But there doesn’t seem to be a quick fix. We Catholics are probably going to live with large parishes and small numbers of priests for the indefinite future. Pining for the “old days” or expecting their return won’t work; each of us needs to embrace personal responsibility to see that the Gospel is lived and passed on. Until next week, peace.
A request: If you’ve been using the notebook to record what you hear from God at Mass and would like to help others to get started, I invite you to send me your jottings; I’ll publish some as examples (without names attached, of course). You can drop off notes to me at the parish office, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to those who have been sending me what you’re hearing