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Survey a ‘reality check’ for church leaders

NCR Staff

A new survey that found the number of priests serving American parishes down 28 percent in the last 15 years and the number of lay ministers up 54 percent should be a “reality check” for church leaders, according to the survey’s coordinator.

The “National Catholic Parish Survey” finds the average parish with 1.8 priests and 5.1 ministers. With the number of priests, religious men and women and deacons all in sharp decline, the survey concludes “there is no way that parishes can serve their members in the future, even the near future, without the continued, even accelerated, growth of lay ministry.”

The survey appears at roughly the same time that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has issued a new pastoral letter, “As I Have Done For You,” affirming growth in lay ministry as “a genuine fruit” of the Second Vatican Council (NCR, May 5).

The results of the survey, released May 4, are based on questionnaires mailed to more than 3,000 parishes, generating over 700 responses. According to its authors, the survey has a 4 percent margin of error.

Project coordinator Jim Castelli told NCR that he hopes the findings will jar church leaders into a clear recognition that lay ministry is here to stay. He conducted the survey with Fr. Eugene Hemrick of The Catholic University of America and the Washington Theological Center.

“Increases in vocations in the Third World or the occasional diocese with a jump is not going to change the big picture,” Castelli said. “We are not going back to parishes with a pastor and three associates. Nor are we going to have substantial numbers of sisters and deacons around.

“Only someone in denial could look at these results and all the trends in vocations and believe things will be fine when priestly ordinations go back up,” Castelli said. He predicts that in the near future, Catholic parishes will be like Catholic schools today -- an almost entirely lay staff, perhaps with a priest in the top job.

The survey finds that the average parish has grown 23 percent in the past 15 years, while the number of priests serving parishes declined 28 percent, and the numbers of deacons and religious are both down 33 percent. Only the number of lay ministers has grown; the percent of parishes with at least one lay minister went from 30 to 68 percent. Below the level of pastor, and excluding retired priests, only 15 percent of parish ministers are priests; 65 percent are lay.

At the policy-making level, Castelli said he hopes church leaders will look at these results and “not fight what’s happening.”

“I would hope they would say yes, this is the direction we need to go, we need lay ministers, and let’s figure out ways we can be more supportive in terms of attitudes and recruitment and training, and a whole range of other issues.”

Information about the survey can be obtained online at http://members.aol.com/cathparishsurvey/welcome.htm

National Catholic Reporter, May 19, 2000