We all know there is a shortage of priests in the United States church, right?
But what is the impact of that shortage on our evangelization efforts? Of course, the fewer priests we have, the fewer evangelists we have. But the shrinking ranks of the priesthood has an even more profound effect than just the loss of additional evangelists.
When I made my first communion, there were 17,600 parishes in the United States. Today, we have fewer—17,400.
However, we have 21.2 million more Catholics than when I was a kid. Where are we putting all those people if we aren’t building more churches? Declining Mass attendance may account for some of our ability to increase our numbers while decreasing the number of parishes, but it doesn’t account for all of it.
The reason we can have fewer parishes is that we are making the parishes we do have—and their worship spaces—bigger. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the overall average size of parishes grew 36 percent, from 855 households in 2000 to 1,167 in 2010. We are not making our parishes bigger because Catholics like big parishes. We are making them bigger because we don’t have enough priests to have small parishes.
On my first communion day, according to CARA, there were 58,600 priests in the U.S. Today, there are only 39,600. By the time today’s first communicants reach adulthood, there will be only 12,600 priests.
What is the impact of all this on evangelization? Here is at least one implication I wonder about. In my childhood parish, the pastor was a big guy. He had a big voice and a big personality. Our worship space was a modest size, and the pastor always seemed to fill up the room. Long after I moved away, the parish built a new worship space that doubled the seating capacity. My childhood pastor was no longer there, but I’m sure he could have filled that room too.
However, we also had two associate pastors. They had much smaller personalities. They did fine in our modest-size worship space. It seemed like we were having an intimate conversation with them when they presided. I don’t know what they would have been like in the new, larger space, however. I think they might have gotten a little swallowed up by it. But who knows. Maybe they would have grown into it.
Engaging seekers in a mega-parish Mass
Today, however, with larger and larger churches becoming the norm, it is not uncommon to experience liturgies in which the presider doesn’t fill up the space. Now, I’m a Catholic liturgist. I do not believe the liturgy is all about the presider the way it is in some evangelical churches. Still, there is a “stage presence” that is required for presiding at Sunday Mass, and that presence becomes more and more critical the larger and larger spaces become.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think seminary training is accounting for this shift in worship styles. If new priests are not being trained to lead worship in spaces that are massively larger than their seminary chapels, and if they do not have naturally big personalities, what will worship be like on Sundays in our soon-to-be-common Catholic mega-churches?
In a previous post, I commented on the growing numbers of unaffiliated people who are seeking a church home. If these seekers happen into a larger Catholic worship space, and if the presider on that Sunday hasn’t been trained to lead worship in a large space, what are the chances that the seeker will be engaged?
We could ask the musicians to step up, but that is also a training issue. I’ve been at a Sunday Mass that regularly attracted 1,200 people or more, and the music was led by a single guitar player as though we were in a small Newman Center chapel.
What can RCIA teams do?
These are difficult issues, and as RCIA leaders, we won’t be able to solve them anytime soon. But here is what we can do. It is a sure bet that there are strangers in your parish every Sunday. The larger the parish, the more strangers who are likely to be there. What you can do is find them. Go looking. Start talking to people you don’t know. And get the rest of the team to help. It is true that an engaging presider and engaging music are important. But the number-one thing seekers are looking for is a personal connection with someone in the parish. That’s something all of us can offer.
What are your thoughts?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How is your parish or diocese preparing for the shift to larger parishes?
3 thoughts on “One unexpected way the priest shortage impacts evangelization”
Nick, thanks for another great and thought-provoking post. Bigger parishes do change the dynamic. And the quality of worship is key.
I just hope we are not headed for the model of mega-church pastors whose personality drives the whole show. I like to think that the bigger Catholic parishes require leaders who are comfortable in delegating. A priest does not have to fill up the room, do everything himself, or be everything to everybody, in order to be a good shepherd.
In many cases, I think the priest isn’t as great an evangelist as someone in the pew may be. He has to be focused on ministry to the community, and probably has developed a skill set that works for the tasks he has to do most of the time. This is OK as long as he also recognizes and empowers the people who will get out there and spread the good news in more risky ways, and in more varied venues.
The evangelizers are going out to the margins, talking to people who aren’t in church at all. It’s not that priests can’t or don’t do that, as Pope Francis has demonstrated. But, as you pointed out, the lay person has a significant role in all this too. We all do!
Hi Rita. I agree that a priest doesn’t have to be or do everything. Liturgy is a team sport. But it is difficult (for me, anyway) to be at a liturgy in which the presider seems to think he is in his living room instead of a space that seats 1,000 or more people.
Even so, as you point out, the real work of evangelization is in more risky ways, and in more varied venues. And that’s mostly our job.
Thanks for your terrific insight.
Catholic priests are, by nature and training, poor preachers and evangelists. Of course there are exceptions.
It is true that in the evangelical tradition, the senior pastor can make/break a congregation.
In discussing mega-parishes, it is an unfortunate fact and truth that it will only grow in the future due to mandatory celibacy. Buildings will get bigger and both folks in the pew and the clergy will get “lost in the crowd” unless they are very active and want to be active.
Evangleists are a special call as Paul tells us. They know how to take the Scriptures and really empower us with its words and message. It does take a person with courage, personality, a little “ham” in them to engage a large crowd and get a message across in less than 30 minutes. Then this same person must manage a million dollar operation.
Those who have the gift of evangelism must use their call and passion by both words and actions to make Christ alive in people’s hearts.
When I was at St John’s, we had 8 SRO Masses a weekend. My pastor, already in his 70’s, was outside before and after each mass shaking hands and greeting people. He was a good preacher and had a strong personality. His emphasis was on good liturgy and preaching. As his liturgy director, we had a common mission and did our best to make Christ present in our worship.
When I attend gateway church(gatewaypeople.com) i was greeted by 10 people even before i entered the auditorium. Everyone said the same thing: “We are so happy you are here with us.” These words were echoed by the worship leader and then the pastor.
This is a mega church but you felt welcomed and at home. The worship and preaching are awesome.
Catholic priests should be trained to preach by the experts: the evangelicals. Priests should engage with their local evangelical pastors to seek their help in this area of ministry. We certainly can teach them about ritual!
yes, all of us are called to evangelize. This is the root of our RCIA: to share the good news of salvation of Jesus Christ; to make disciples; to empower these folks to evangelize in their own way. As you know, “converts” make the best evangelizers!!