Catholic priests spread thin as numbers dwindle
The newly ordained Rev. Michael Ackerman had a challenging first assignment last summer: Serving more than 3,500 families on a three-priest team across four Catholic churches near the Ohio border in New Castle.
On a typical weekend, Ackerman would celebrate a Mass or two at one church, preside over baptisms and a wedding at another and then drive to a third location for an evening youth group.
“You'd use the commuting time to pray and to think through things,” said Ackerman, 31, a former Riverview School District teacher who grew up in Aspinwall. “You had to be creative.”
In contrast, the Rev. Kenneth Marlovits — ordained into the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh last June alongside Ackerman and two other men — is part of a three-priest team focused on one parish of about 3,000 families, St. Bernard in Mt. Lebanon.
“Even with the three of us here,” said Marlovits, 45, “because of a lack of priests in other areas, we get called upon a lot to fill in needs elsewhere.”
Decades of steep declines in the number of Catholic priests — while the overall U.S. Catholic population grew or held steady — have left bishops nationwide grappling with ways to meet parishioner needs amid diminishing resources.
An aging priesthood
In coming weeks, Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh diocese will ordain six priests, bringing the number of active priests in the diocese to 234.
Twenty-five years ago, the diocese had more than 600 active priests. Now more than 40 of its 200 parishes lack resident priest pastors.
“That's a dramatic difference,” said Zubik. “Given the sacramental nature of what the church is all about, it has to be clear what the future is.”
The United States has about 20,000 fewer Catholic priests than in 1965, a 34 percent drop, according to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate , or CARA, at Georgetown University.
Nearly 3,500 of about 17,500 Catholic parishes in the United States had no resident priests last year, compared with 549 of 17,600 parishes that did not in 1965 and about 1,800 that lacked one in 1990, CARA data show.
“Some priests have died and some have left, and now there's a huge bulk of priests who, once they reach retirement age, we're not replacing,” said the Rev. Charles Bober of St. Kilian Parish and Worship Center in Cranberry.
Some American seminaries have reported upticks in enrollment. The Rev. Brian Welding of St. Paul Seminary in Crafton said he's encouraged by a steady stream of high-quality priest candidates in recent years.
But the shortage likely will get worse before it gets better, since the overwhelming majority of priests are aging out.
In greater Pittsburgh, “we only have about 50 priests under 50,” said Ackerman, now assigned to St. Mary of the Assumption in Glenshaw.
In the Diocese of Greensburg, which has 84 priests in Armstrong, Fayette, Indiana and Westmoreland counties, 38 of 78 parishes share a priest pastor/administrator, spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.
By 2025, Greensburg expects to have just 27 priests — about a fourth of what it had in 2000.
The Diocese of Erie — the largest geographically in Pennsylvania with 117 parishes across 13 counties — has 120 active priests, according to spokeswoman Anne-Marie Welsh. Thirty-five priests oversee two or three parishes.
This year, the Erie diocese will ordain one priest; it ordained none in 2014. Its pastoral planning team projects that by 2020, the number of priests will plummet to just 36.
A ‘manufactured' crisis?
Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, cautions against overreacting to what he calls an artificial crisis “manufactured by those who say we need to make these radical changes in order to solve the problem,” referring to proposed changes such as expanding priesthood eligibility to married men and — more controversially — to women.
“The idea that there are a lot of Catholics who will be looking for priests or Mass and not being able to find them is not likely to be true,” Sullins said.
National surveys have flagged a slight dip in numbers of American Catholics in recent years, but long-term studies show the denomination has grown modestly in most years since the 1960s. A Pew Research Center survey last month pegged the Catholic population in the United States at about 51 million. CARA surveys using different methodology put the total closer to 76 million.
In Western Pennsylvania towns that once relied on steel mills or coal mining, “a lot of the Catholic population has moved away or died off,” Pittsburgh diocesan spokeswoman Ann Rodgers said. Certain parishes will have to be addressed as “emergency situations.”
But in places such as Upper St. Clair and Cranberry, parishes are booming. St. Kilian's in Cranberry grew by 400 percent in the past decade to about 11,000 members.
The Pittsburgh diocese, which includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Greene and Washington counties, serves a 3,750-square-mile area made up of 633,117 Catholics, or one-third of the total population.
Deacons stepping up
A parallel trend is promising: As Catholic priests' numbers have declined, deacons have proliferated — from fewer than 900 permanent deacons nationwide in 1975 to nearly 17,500 by 2014, CARA data show.
Only priests can celebrate Mass, but deacons can perform weddings and conduct memorial services and baptisms; lay ministers can run youth groups and visit sick parishioners.
The Pittsburgh diocese has 99 deacons, two of whom will join a pilot program this summer training deacons to oversee day-to-day management of parishes. Twenty-one men are in the diocese's initial phase of becoming a deacon.
The Diocese of Greensburg implemented its first permanent deacon program 10 years ago. It has six such deacons now, with four more to be ordained Saturday.
“It gives the priests the opportunity to handle more of the sacramental ministry — confession, Mass, anointing the sick — and it gives us more time to visit nursing homes or hospitals,” said Ackerman.
Adapting to models
Zubik is preparing to address the priest shortage and other priorities through a five-year planning initiative called “On Mission for The Church Alive!”
“The hope that I have is that people are going to come together, take a look at what's happening in their area and present to me models of how parishes can be vibrant,” he said.
The program is not about closing churches or parishes, Zubik said, although he acknowledged more parishes may close or consolidate.
“It is a different model than the past, when it was one parish, five priests for every town or every ethnicity, so the dynamic is changing,” said Deacon Chris Mannerino, 30, who grew up in Rochester, Beaver County, and is to be ordained as a priest June 27.
St. Bernard's Marlovits said he's confident that newly ordained priests are “coming into the situation with a realistic understanding of what's before us.”
“I grew up in a combined parish; it's what I knew,” agreed Deacon David Rombold, 27, also to be ordained as a priest at the end of the month. His childhood parish was St. Agatha's in Ellwood City, which merged with Purification of Blessed Virgin Mary Church in 2000, when Rombold was 12.
“I expect to be busy but rewarded,” said Mannerino. “We joined the priesthood not to be comfortable; we joined because we love the church, we love the people, and we want to get the job done.”
Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.