Fewer numbers of priests bringing challenges

Priests by the numbers 1Sacred Heart Church in Elsberry is fuller after it went from three Masses on Sunday to one. Volunteers are relied on more for groundskeeping, small repairs and cleaning.

Holy Week had a limited schedule, split between two churches, as part of an adjustment to no longer having a full-time pastor.

In June of 2013, Father Charles Tichacek, the pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Millwood, also was appointed to oversee Sacred Heart in Elsberry. The Lincoln County parishes are separated by 18 country miles. St. Alphonsus has about 280 households and Sacred Heart has about 150.

Priests by the numbers 2Different methods of parish administration -- such as sharing a pastor, being administered by someone other than a priest or perhaps a cluster of parishes served by priests at one site -- are expected to become more common in St. Louis. Experience and planning illustrate that parishes with new administrative models can continue to be vibrant, with plenty of opportunities for worship, sacraments and spiritual renewal.

In 1997, a projection on the declining number of diocesan priests in the Archdiocese of St. Louis stated that parishes without a resident priest would be a reality within 20 years.

The number of active priests serving the archdiocese was predicted to decrease from 391 to 216 by 2016. The number of diocesan priests already had dropped by 90 from 1978 to 1997.

The 1997 projection was a little more pessimistic than it now appears, according to John Schwob, director of pastoral planning for the archdiocese. There are 275 active priests in the archdiocese, a little better than anticipated in the 1990s, when few priests were being ordained, he said.

In 1997, the number of seminarians for the archdiocese was 30, and this fall the seminary is expecting to have a little more than 50 men from the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Still, the number of active priests is down by 116 since 1997. The number of priests serving in non-parish administrative roles such as the director of an archdiocesan office or agency has decreased from 96 to 24. Though they serve in administrative roles, these priests also are assigned in residence at parishes and assist with sacramental needs for the faithful. The percentage of priests age 55 and under has gone from 42 percent in 1997 to 29 percent today. Twenty-two percent of priests today are age 75 and older, while in 1997 they were 13 percent of the total. The number of priests who were ordained in the 1990s make up 13 percent of the total now and 25 percent previously.

The archdiocese has seven pastors age 75 or older and 13 pastors who will turn 75, the age of retirement, in the next five years. Thirty-eight pastors will reach retirement age in the next 10 years. Priests are being named pastors at a much younger age now.

Schwob is projecting an average of five priests will be ordained each year over the next 10 years -- a figure to which he arrived by considering the number ordained over the past nine years and the number of candidates for the next five years. This estimate means that the archdiocese would have 30 fewer priests in five years and 60 fewer in 10 years.

Parishes with less than 300 households often share a priest. Projections are that parishes under 400 will share a priest in the future.

"Today, we have only about 26 parishes that share a priest," Schwob said. "This could increase by 15 to 20 by 2024. It means either they will not have a resident pastor or they will have a deacon or layperson as administrator."

In spite of the projected changes, the Archdiocese of St. Louis still ranks at the top of dioceses in the number of diocesan priests per Catholics. Of 27 dioceses with Catholic populations between 400,000 and 700,000, St. Louis ranks best, with one priest per 1,526 Catholics. For the past five years that data is available, the St. Louis Archdiocese ranks first among the largest 79 dioceses in number of ordinations per Catholic population.

Msgr. Richard Hanneke, who served as vicar for priests until earlier this month, said complicating factors include a demographic shift in the Catholic population. In 1960, he noted, 32 percent of Catholics in the archdiocese lived in the City of St. Louis and four percent in St. Charles County. Today, with still a large number of parishes in the city, 10 percent of Catholics live in the city and 21 percent in St. Charles County. Only one parish has been built in St. Charles in the same time frame. The St. Charles Deanery has one priest per 2,469 Catholics and the North St. Louis Deanery has one per 439.

Another factor is a desire by Archbishop Robert J. Carlson to avoid closing vibrant parishes. Parishes with a small number of households often maintain a strong presence, Msgr. Hanneke said, and can thrive with sacramental needs provided by a priest coming from another location.

"In St. Louis we've been very fortunate throughout our history to have an abundance of priests, and therefore historically have been able to have residential pastors in many of our small parishes," he said. "The archbishop is asking our priests to take on an extra load, sometimes taking on the responsibilities of two or three parishes. If we're asking the priests to do this, we also have to ask the people of the parishes to change their mindset because a parish is not the priest alone. A parish is the co-responsibility of a priest and the laity."

A curriculum for some permanent deacons to be trained to serve in parish administration is being planned as well, said Msgr. Hanneke, who worked with the Priests Personnel Board in recommending priest assignments to the archbishop. Father Michael Boehm took over as vicar for priests this month when Msgr. Hanneke was named pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in University City.

These changes may affect urban and suburban parishes as well as rural ones, Msgr. Hanneke added. "While we are doing some strategic planning with these smaller parishes to come together in some fashion, there also is a need for strategic planning on the reverse side -- how we are planning for these growing parishes also facing a decreasing number of priests to serve."

Deaneries are becoming more proactive in addressing upcoming retirement of pastors and are beginning to work on a pastoral plan to be presented to the archbishop for his consideration.

Helping to fill the lay ministerial roles is Paul VI Institute's lay formation program, giving people of parishes qualifications to assist at their parish.

When a priest is serving more than one parish, fewer Masses may be scheduled on a Sunday at each parish -- a move that is seen as positive because it could bring more life to the Masses with a larger group. Last winter, a storm predicted for Sunday meant that more people went to Vigil Mass on Saturday. Pastors noted that "those were some of the most joyous liturgies because the place was packed. People were singing and instead of a third- or half-filled church, it was full," Schwob said.

Father Tichacek, of the two Lincoln County parishes, said without a full-time pastor, the people of a parish tend to work together a little better. The parishes of Lincoln County are collaborating more, seeing themselves more as one instead of five separate communities.

Read about St. Andrew Parish in Lemay, the only parish in the archdiocese that currently has a deacon administrator.

File Attachment: 
No votes yet