success stories

Posted February 10, 2003

The Future of the Church Is in Our Attitude

By Father Eugene Hemrick

If the Catholic Church continues its current growth rate in the United States, the small and personal parish with its own personal pastor will be a thing of the past.

The 2002 edition of the Official Catholic Directory reports there are 65,270,444 Catholics in the United States and its possessions, up nearly 1.6 million, or 5 percent, from a year earlier. These statistics reveal that Catholics are increasing in numbers through new births, an influx of immigrants and adults entering the church.

One would think this would lead to a surge of new parishes, but this isn't true. The 19,496 parishes in the United States were 48 fewer than a year earlier, while the number of missions was down by 39 to 3,036. Thirty-five new parishes were established in the past year to help offset parish closings.

Statistics such as these are leading analysts to believe that many parishes that once enjoyed the luxury of being small will become megaparishes.

Among the reasons why we're seeing few new parishes despite enormous growth in the number of Catholics is the continual decline of newly ordained priests. There were 30,429 diocesan priests at the start of 2002, down 226 from a year earlier, and 15,244 priests in religious orders, a drop of 142. Diocesan and religious seminaries report 4,719 students at the start of the year, down 198 from the year before.

Not only do the statistics suggest that we will be seeing more parishes without a priest in residence, they also raise the serious question of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the United States and why this life dedicated to God is not attracting more young men. No doubt the present scandals are one reason, but even before them vocations had been dropping off.

On the positive side, other statistics tell us that we can expect to see a much stronger collaboration of laity and deacons with priests. Lay people and deacons are going to play a bigger role in parish life.

The number of permanent deacons rose by 416 to 13,764 at the start of 2002. Lay ministers and lay ministry training centers also increased.

Unfortunately, sisters, who once were the backbone of many parishes coping with fewer priests and increased numbers of Catholics, will not be able to continue in that supporting role. The number of religious sisters has continued a decline that began in the 1970s, falling by nearly 4,000 this last year to 75,500.

These few statistics alone reveal that those of us who in the past were most responsible for the church's effectiveness need to rethink our attitudes.

What attitudes must we cultivate that are entrepreneurial in spirit, while founded in reality? As we approach a future that is telling us we never will enjoy the church as we knew it in the past, will we cling desperately to memories or create new dreams? Will we continue to try and do business as usual or look for ways to generate a new and better apostolate?

Will we blame everyone but ourselves for the difficult future we face or shoulder responsibility for making that future outstanding? Will we continue to reinvent the wheel or take to the air and enter the stratosphere?

No doubt the future of the church looks ominous, that is, if we look at it only one way. New attitudes give us a new view and, more important, new hope.