success stories

The Changing Face of Parishes

A CNS News Report on How the Archdiocese of Baltimore is Responding to Fewer Priests

In response to a projected 29 percent drop in the number of priests available for ministry in the year 2015, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has implemented a wide-ranging, 15-year plan for the recruitment and distribution of priests.

The plan includes:

1. Recruitment of more foreign-born priests and implementation of a training program for them

2. Greater use of parish clustering in scheduling Masses and confession

3. Better utilization of deacons

4. Increased use of parish business managers and other lay ministers to handle administrative duties

5. Requiring all seminarians to learn Spanish

The archdiocese also notes a need to guard against overburdening current and future priests. It sets a minimum of six years after ordination before a priest can be named to head a parish, and urges priests to take advantage of all scheduled leave time, including a weeklong annual retreat, and to "take better care of their health through physical exercise programs."

It calls for "particular sensitivity" toward the needs of parishes in the "struggling churches" of western Maryland and the city of Baltimore.

The plans are detailed in a 60-page report, "The Hope That Lies Before Us," prepared by the archdiocese's 21-member Committee on the Allocation and Recruitment of Priests and approved by Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore and his three auxiliaries, Bishops William C. Newman, Gordon D. Bennett and W. Francis Malooly.

Citing statistics from a study three years ago by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, the report projects a decline in the number of priests available for active service from 201 in 1999 to 143 in 2015. During that same period, the average age of priests in the archdiocese would rise from slightly over 58 years to nearly 61.

The projection assumes that there will be five ordinations a year until 2015 and a retirement age of 70 for priests.

The number of pastoral life directors who lead parishes in place of a priest would increase substantially over the next five years, according to the committee report, which said candidates would be recruited from among the ranks of deacons, women and men religious and lay ecclesial ministers.

Citing the requirement in canon law that a priest be available to every parish, the report proposed several possible scenarios:

-- One priest as pastor of several small parishes.

-- One priest heading multiple parishes, with a pastoral administrator responsible to the priest leading at least one of the parishes.

-- A team of priests, deacons, religious and lay people providing pastoral ministry to multiple parishes.

The report also encouraged Cardinal Keeler to continue his efforts to recruit foreign-born priests through contacts with bishops overseas and with religious orders.

But, it added, the archdiocese should develop "a rationale and plan for the recruitment and employment of these foreign-born priests and seminarians that will include such issues as orientation, inculturation, assignment and impact on the country of their origin."

The committee report calls for the elimination of "thinly attended Masses" and the coordination of confession schedules in a cluster or region. Each parish is asked to prepare "several" ministers -- preferably a deacon but including lay people if needed -- to lead Communion services in the absence of a priest.

In addition to the clusters, the report suggests linking each parish in the archdiocese with another in a geographically removed area, such as a Baltimore city parish with a western Maryland parish.

The idea is to help parishes "appreciate the diversity that exists in the archdiocese so they can work together creatively in pursuit of the church's mission," the report said.

To increase vocations, the report calls for the establishment of regional vocations coordinators; expansion of the "Priest as Inviter" program in regional priest gatherings; more vocation awareness programs in parish schools, religious education programs and youth ministry; and the placement of more priests in campus ministry, saying that "Catholic and non-Catholic colleges are fertile ground for vocations."

Noting that the priest's presence with young people is "one of the most vital and important strategies the church has for recruitment," the report urged priests to pay particular attention to fifth-grade students and juniors in high school, since those are the crucial years in vocation discernment, according to recent national studies.