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Pope Francis Called For More Work From Priests, But 20 Percent Of Parishes Don’t Even Have One

In his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis on Wednesday urged American bishops to help priests spend more time caring for the spiritual needs of their parishioners. However, American priests who wish to follow his example may find themselves stretched thin. The priest shortage leaves each of them caring for record numbers of parishioners.

In his final exhortation to his brother bishops in Washington, Pope Francis urged them to find ways to encourage the spiritual growth of priests, “lest they yield to the temptation to become notaries and bureaucrats, but instead reflect the motherhood of the church, which gives birth to and raises her sons and daughters.” He added: “Train them to be ready to stop, care for, soothe, lift up and assist those who, by chance, find themselves stripped of all they thought they had.”

But in the American Roman Catholic Church, a priest trying to live up to the pope’s vision is in for a lot of sleepless nights. According to research by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, there are more than 2,600 Catholic parishioners for every diocesan priest.1 When CARA began keeping statistics in 1965, priests’ workload was only half as large — 1,289 parishioners per priest.

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The priest shortage predates the news of sex abuse within the Catholic church, but that scandal has likely contributed to the shortage. Other possible causes include the decline in Catholic school enrollment and the shift to lay teachers in many Catholic schools (making it less likely that a Catholic child will encounter role models in religious life). American seminaries have recently gotten better at enrolling young men, but, for the present, the church still relies on priests from Africa and Asia to fill American pulpits.

When a diocese just doesn’t have enough priests to go around, some parishes wind up without a resident pastor. Although less than 5 percent of parishes lacked a resident pastor from 1965 to 1980, today 20 percent of parishes have no priest in residence. Responsibility for these parishes is usually shared among several nearby priests, but in some cases, all pastoral and administrative matters are entrusted to a layperson, while visiting priests continue to offer Mass.

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Priests may be stretched even further than these figures indicate. CARA has found consistently since 1965 that the number of self-reported Catholics in national surveys exceeds the number of Catholics who have registered as members of a particular diocese. The share of disconnected Catholics has quadrupled between 1965 and 2015. These Catholics may have fallen away or may attend a parish without formally registering, and thus may still be under the purview of a parish priest.

YEAR SHARE OF CATHOLICS UNCONNECTED TOTAL CATHOLICS UNCONNECTED
1965 4.8% 2.2m
1970 6.5 3.1
1975 11.9 5.8
1980 12.5 6.3
1985 13.8 7.2
1990 12 6.7
1995 14.5 8.3
2000 19.7 11.8
2005 14.2 9.2
2010 13.7 9.0
2015 19.8 13.5

Pope Francis prayed before the bishops that “the closeness of the shepherd make [parishioners] long once again for the Father’s embrace,” but for a priest confronted with record numbers of sheep, the task is likely to be challenging logistically as well as spiritually.

Read More: What Does Success Look Like For Pope Francis?

Footnotes

  1. A diocesan priest is a man ordained to serve a parish. Ordained men who are members of religious orders (Dominicans, Trappists, Carthusians, etc.) and are not usually attached to parishes are excluded from this figure.

Leah Libresco is a former news writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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