Parish mergers solution to priest shortage?

The Archdiocese of St Louis, the largest and oldest in Missouri, is in the midst of a major pastoral planning initiative dubbed All Things New, announced last May.

Apr 22, 2023

Parishioners attending Mass at the Cathedral Basilica in St Louis. (David Carson, Post-Dispatch)

By Jonah McKeown
The Archdiocese of St Louis, the largest and oldest in Missouri, is in the midst of a major pastoral planning initiative dubbed All Things New, announced last May. An as-yet undetermined number of the current 178 parishes in the archdiocese will close or merge in the next three years, in an effort the archdiocese says will better use its resources for evangelisation. The most recent iteration of the plan calls for merging and expanding of parish boundaries, creating overall fewer — and much larger — congregations.

The second round of draft models released in February shows many current parishes coming together into “pastorates,” either as separate parishes that share priests or as one new, merged parish. Under canon law, a diocesan bishop has the authority to alter parishes, but only for a just reason specific to each parish. Concern for souls must be the principal motivation for modifying a parish.

Fr Chris Martin, a St Louis native who is overseeing the All Things New process, said that one of the reasons for the process is a priest shortage on the horizon. The archdiocese is not currently starved for priests — in fact, it has a better priest-to-parishioner ratio than the national average and one of the highest in the country for a diocese its size. According to the CARA research centre at Georgetown University, the ratio for the country as a whole is one diocesan priest for every 2,096 Catholics. In St. Louis, that ratio is one diocesan priest for every 1,630 Catholics. And that doesn’t include the strong presence of religious priests active in the archdiocese, such as those belonging to the Dominican, Jesuit, and Benedictine orders.

That said, the current trajectory of St Louis’ diocesan priest population is not sustainable long-term, Fr Martin said. The average St Louis diocesan priest is in his mid-60s, and priests are retiring and passing away at a greater rate than new men are being ordained — this is true of religious priests, too, he noted.

Fr Martin also stressed a distinction: Just because there are currently enough archdiocesan priests to provide pastoral care for all the people in St Louis, that doesn’t mean they have enough priests to care for all the parishes that currently exist. Already, the priest population in St Louis is stretched thin because of the high number of parishes that must be maintained. If one priest has to call in sick or is otherwise indisposed, it can be a challenge to get his assignments covered because almost every other priest is already taking care of his own parish.

The number of parishes will likely exceed the number of priests by 2026, according to archdiocesan projections. Barring a massive increase in vocations, the number of priests in St. Louis will begin to decline, eventually to an untenable number. “Doing nothing” in the face of these demographic changes, Martin said, “would be irresponsible.” Fr Martin, a former vocations director for the diocese, said while he wholeheartedly supports a financial investment in priestly vocations, a change in culture is what is really needed, not just in St Louis but everywhere.

“God is still calling enough priests to serve His people,” he asserted, but cultural barriers often stand in the way. He said when he worked in vocations, he observed that most young people don’t pursue vocations because they were never personally invited, or in some cases because their parents forbade it.

“It’s not about throwing resources at vocations. It’s really about developing a culture of vocations in our parishes and in our families, where it’s really something that moms and dads sincerely pray for and talk to their children about, what God may be calling them to in life,” he added. --CNA

Total Comments:0