The future parish

Reviewed By Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The secular world clings to the idea that the Catholic Church is unchanging. Catholics know better. Pressed to say how, we turn to describing our parish. Perhaps seeing the church in one parish is like seeing the world in a grain of sand. But "Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century," looks at the big picture, reporting important data and details about parishes, parishioners and parish staffs.

In fact, a parish reading group might find it enlightening to compare and contrast its own community with the 1,732 others in the study.

The book’s data-driven account comes with charts and reader-friendly explanations. To fill out the story, the authors include comparisons to the 1987 University of Notre Dame study of parish life. No surprise to find that in the intervening 30 years some parishes have changed dramatically.

The book looks at the parish from four perspectives: 1) regional shifts in Catholic population; 2) new parish configurations; 3) new staffing patterns; 4) demography and diversity in the pews. If all these changes don’t affect your parish now, they almost certainly will in the coming decades.

1) Regional shifts. People move; parishes don’t. The Midwest and Northeast were once home to 65 percent of U.S. Catholics. In 2010, that was down to 51 percent, with an increase to 49 percent in the South and West. Retirees, job seekers and younger Catholics migrating there left Northern and Eastern parishes with smaller congregations and fewer resources. Illinois, for example, lost between 50 and 99 parishes in the first decade of the 21st century, while Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island each lost more than 100. Colorado, Texas, Georgia, Florida, California, Washington and Nevada added parishes, but at a far lower rate than losses to the north.

2) Parish configurations. Fewer parishioners and priests along with limited resources bring closings or mergers. To everyone’s distress, especially in rural areas, parishes close, others merge or join in a consortium under a pastoral life coordinator, not a pastor. Though new parishes must be organized and churches built in the South and West, the same constraints are in play even with a growing Catholic population. Key to those constraints are the decline in clergy and the need to pay parish staffs.

3) Parish staffs: Everywhere Catholics see dramatic changes in parish personnel. In 1969 there were some 60,000 priests and 230,000 women religious. Today the five-priest rectory now houses one, and the 10-sister convent has been sold to augment the parish budget. Fewer priests increase the ratio of priests to people. In 1942 there were 621 Catholics per priest, today there are 1,728. Into this ministry gap have stepped permanent deacons (18,000 in 2014) and lay ecclesial ministers (38,000 in 2012), many with years of study and preparation. Along with lay volunteers, some offering their professional expertise, a parish may enjoy a greater range of talents than ever before.

4) View from the pew: The racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of many parishes proves that the global church lives in the local church. This study includes under its diversity rubric "non-Hispanic blacks" (i.e., African Americans) and Native Americans, who are not immigrants or newcomers, but it emphasizes Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders. Hispanics are 33 percent of U.S. Catholics while only 17 percent appear as respondents in the study.

Is that gap due to Hispanic absence from parish life? Or are better methods needed to study Hispanics and other immigrants? In fact, does the collective noun "Hispanic" obscure more than it reveals? Do Spanish speakers always speak the same Spanish or share a common culture? Cubans are not Puerto Ricans and Chileans are not Hondurans. None of them are Portuguese-speaking Brazilians.

Among immigrants are priests (international priests in the study) invited to bridge the clergy gap. Little is made of the possibility that the language and culture of immigrant priests may not necessarily correspond to the populations they encounter in the pews. For example, in 2012, 972 Indian priests ministered in the U.S., as did 702 priests from the Philippines, who are more likely to share a language and culture with their parishioners.

"Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century" maintains an upbeat tone toward the data and details of change; readers may want to test their observations against its findings. The chaos and distress brought by shifts in parish organization and parish staffs and the divisions created by changing demographics may loom large in some places.

Over a third of parishes now serve a particular linguistic, ethnic, racial or cultural community — sometimes more than one. The book reports that many parishes have adapted in moving from homogeneity to diversity and that newcomers deeply appreciate welcoming communities. Still, the authors allow that what evolves may be "shared parishes," rather than united parish communities.

Where there has been gain there has also been loss. A recent Pew study reports that 52 percent of Americans raised Catholic leave the church (with just over 10 percent of them returning at some point). What would happen if they all showed up for Mass on the first Sunday of Advent? Amid the jubilation it would be obvious that no parish could cope with their numbers or needs.

The sense of the book that, in spite of so many changes, things move along on a relatively smooth path depends on the fact that so few give anything or ask much of their parish. Is that the story of the future as well as the present?

Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal and Church magazine.