Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - Updated: 2:28 pm
QUESTION: My father lives in a small nursing facility and a priest used to come and say Mass there regularly. Now a deacon or Eucharistic minister comes and does a service. I hear of people who complain that a priest does not come to the funeral home before the funeral Mass. There are not as many Masses in my parish now. And the diocese keeps telling us that there is more ministry now than ever. How is that?
ANSWER: It seems to me that the key to any response to the above question has to begin with some definition of “ministry” and a few words about those who exercise it within the church.
As we entered the 1970s, there were a great many priests in the Catholic Church. But there were no permanent deacons, no extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, no lectors and few “ministries.” But there were lots of priests who did the work that was expected.
Today there are far fewer priests. To help understand that reality, here are some statistics. In 1970, there were 59,192 priests in the United States. In 2018, there are 36,580. In 1970, 805 men were ordained as priests in the United States. In 2018, there were 518 ordained.
The ministry that most people experienced over several decades was that of parish priests. The painful truth is that there are far fewer priests today than there were in 1970. If one equates ministry with the service provided by ordained priests, clearly there is less of that ministry being carried out today. The statistics are what they are. Despite his best efforts, one priest cannot do today what three or more priests did in 1970.
But if we understand ministry in a broader sense, the perspective can be different. In 1970, there were virtually no permanent deacons, but in 2018, there were 18,291. Permanent deacons are ordained clergy who assist priests and bishops in their ministry. These deacons help visit the sick, bury the dead and care for the needy. They assist with many elements of parish life.
But they are not alone. Many catechists teach the faith in Catholic schools and religious education programs. Youth ministers assist the young and parish social service ministers help the elderly and the poor. Catholic organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Ladies of Charity help those in need. Today, there are countless numbers of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion who bring the Eucharist to the sick in homes and nursing facilities, in addition to their service at liturgies in the parish.
If one expects to receive the Eucharist when ill, that happens today. If one expects to receive tangible assistance when in need, that happens. When one needs to find direction in life, that happens in the church.
But if one expects the parish priest to do all of those tasks, it cannot happen the same way it did in 1970. The truth is that ministry continues to be carried out, but it is not the exclusive domain of the parish priest. He is assisted by many, many others. The parish priest does what only he can do. Other ministry that can be accomplished by others is done by them.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.