Friday, September 16, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: In the material I have been reading in my parish bulletin I am told that there is a priest shortage in the United States. But nowhere do I read why that shortage exists. Is there a clear answer?
ANSWER: There is no one answer to the question posed above. At best one can cite a few factors of influence.
Some say that there is a priest shortage because young people today are less concerned about serving others and more concerned about themselves. I don’t agree with that and, in fact, know many young men and women who are very concerned about others and give a great deal of their time to individuals, charities and the church.
Others will say that young people today are afraid of making commitments, and that’s why fewer people are getting married or going into the priesthood or religious life. It is true that our current culture tends to view almost everything as transient and very little as permanent. While this approach might play some part, it is certainly not the entire story of why there are fewer priests.
While we acknowledge that a vocation to the priesthood is a call from God, it is also influenced by human factors. Clearly, priests, parents and parishioners play an important role. Each of us has to ask ourselves how often we speak positively to young men and women about a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.
Part of the perspective also has to do with demographics. World War II changed the way many Catholics looked at life. For them, the Catholic Church was growing and provided a vehicle for their hope and vision. Large numbers of men and women entered the priesthood and religious life. The 1960s and early ‘70s bore the fruit of this impetus. For example, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the priesthood ordination classes of 1971, ‘72 and ‘73 had a combined total of 54 new priests. Those numbers will likely not be repeated in the near future, and as those priests approach retirement, the number of priests available for assignments is reduced dramatically.
Roughly in that same time period the church in the Pittsburgh Diocese expanded rapidly, and its “footprint” (of parishes and buildings) increased significantly. Urban, suburban and rural parishes were abundant and crowded, and there were more than enough priests to provide for them.
Today, that picture is different. The number of Catholics has decreased together with the general population of much of the region. Many Catholics have moved from established neighborhoods. At the same time, the number of priests has clearly decreased. The number of parishes will soon exceed the number of priests available to serve in them.
It seems clear that there are many factors that contribute to what is described as the “priest shortage.” No one factor can explain it all. In the same way, there are many ways in which the “priest shortage” can be addressed. No one of them will solve it, and all of them will require some sacrifice on the part of the clergy and the entire diocesan community. What is clear is that what we looked like in the 1960s is not what we will look like in 2025.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.