We all know there is a shortage of priests in the United States church, right?
But what is the impact of that shortage on our evangelization efforts? Of course, the fewer priests we have, the fewer evangelists we have. But the shrinking ranks of the priesthood has an even more profound effect than just the loss of additional evangelists.
When I made my first communion, there were 17,600 parishes in the United States. Today, we have fewer—17,400.
However, we have 21.2 million more Catholics than when I was a kid. Where are we putting all those people if we aren’t building more churches? Declining Mass attendance may account for some of our ability to increase our numbers while decreasing the number of parishes, but it doesn’t account for all of it.
The reason we can have fewer parishes is that we are making the parishes we do have—and their worship spaces—bigger. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the overall average size of parishes grew 36 percent, from 855 households in 2000 to 1,167 in 2010. We are not making our parishes bigger because Catholics like big parishes. We are making them bigger because we don’t have enough priests to have small parishes.
On my first communion day, according to CARA, there were 58,600 priests in the U.S. Today, there are only 39,600. By the time today’s first communicants reach adulthood, there will be only 12,600 priests.
What is the impact of all this on evangelization? Here is at least one implication I wonder about. In my childhood parish, the pastor was a big guy. He had a big voice and a big personality. Our worship space was a modest size, and the pastor always seemed to fill up the room. Long after I moved away, the parish built a new worship space that doubled the seating capacity. My childhood pastor was no longer there, but I’m sure he could have filled that room too.
However, we also had two associate pastors. They had much smaller personalities. They did fine in our modest-size worship space. It seemed like we were having an intimate conversation with them when they presided. I don’t know what they would have been like in the new, larger space, however. I think they might have gotten a little swallowed up by it. But who knows. Maybe they would have grown into it.
Engaging seekers in a mega-parish Mass
Today, however, with larger and larger churches becoming the norm, it is not uncommon to experience liturgies in which the presider doesn’t fill up the space. Now, I’m a Catholic liturgist. I do not believe the liturgy is all about the presider the way it is in some evangelical churches. Still, there is a “stage presence” that is required for presiding at Sunday Mass, and that presence becomes more and more critical the larger and larger spaces become.
I could be wrong, but I don’t think seminary training is accounting for this shift in worship styles. If new priests are not being trained to lead worship in spaces that are massively larger than their seminary chapels, and if they do not have naturally big personalities, what will worship be like on Sundays in our soon-to-be-common Catholic mega-churches?
In a previous post, I commented on the growing numbers of unaffiliated people who are seeking a church home. If these seekers happen into a larger Catholic worship space, and if the presider on that Sunday hasn’t been trained to lead worship in a large space, what are the chances that the seeker will be engaged?
We could ask the musicians to step up, but that is also a training issue. I’ve been at a Sunday Mass that regularly attracted 1,200 people or more, and the music was led by a single guitar player as though we were in a small Newman Center chapel.
What can RCIA teams do?
These are difficult issues, and as RCIA leaders, we won’t be able to solve them anytime soon. But here is what we can do. It is a sure bet that there are strangers in your parish every Sunday. The larger the parish, the more strangers who are likely to be there. What you can do is find them. Go looking. Start talking to people you don’t know. And get the rest of the team to help. It is true that an engaging presider and engaging music are important. But the number-one thing seekers are looking for is a personal connection with someone in the parish. That’s something all of us can offer.
What are your thoughts?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How is your parish or diocese preparing for the shift to larger parishes?