Bigger parishes with fewer priests

Although there are fewer parishes in the US (3,363 of 17,007) without resident priests than there were 14 years ago, parish sizes have grown.

The latest data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) says 10 percent of parishes without priests are entrusted to a deacon, woman religious or layperson.

The 341 parishes entrusted to a layperson (known as Canon 517.2 parishes) are considerably fewer than the more than 500 in 2005.

One reason for this decline is that US dioceses have closed nearly 2,000 churches since 2005.

The overall reduction in parishes has so far prevented the long, if slowing, decline in the number of active diocesan priests in the US from causing an explosion in “pastorless parishes”.

“The question is, how long is this sustainable?” asks Mark Gray, a researcher for CARA.

With the Catholic population growing steadily in the South and West, it is not practical to keep reducing the total number of parishes. The question is how else is it possible to cope with the dwindling number of priests available to serve as pastors?

“In 1985, there were 1.5 active diocesan priests per parish in the United States,” Gray writes.

“Today, there is 1.0 active diocesan priest per parish.”

The preferred solution seems to be consolidation.

Almost 90 percent of parishes without resident pastors share administrators.

While consolidation may be the popular choice of the moment, it comes with its own set of questions.

These include “how many parishes can one diocesan priest handle?” and “How big can new ‘megaparishes’ get?”

Canon law says that a diocesan bishop, responding to “a dearth of priests,” may entrust the pastoral care of a parish to “a deacon or to some other person who is not a priest or to a community of persons” (as long as there is some oversight by a priest).

Currently, Canon 517.2 parishes are most numerous in Wisconsin (55), New York (38), Alaska (32), Michigan (28) and California (23).

Although only 7.6 percent of Catholic parishes worldwide are in the US, 18.0 percent of all Canon 517.2 parishes entrusted to a deacon or layperson are in the US.

Nonetheless so far, the Canon 517.2 option is rarely used, but if priest numbers continue to drop, it may become a standard response.

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News category: World.

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