By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

As the Universal Church begins its process of conducting a “Synod on Synodality,” one issue that should be put on the table for discussion is the fact that there is an option to closing parishes as the number of priests to pastor them declines.

Okay, let’s back up a bit to make sure everybody is on board with our discussion. First things first: What is a “Synod on Synodality?”

A synod means different things in different contexts. In some places, it refers to a church’s permanent governing body. But in general Catholic usage, it can refer both to be a permanent body of bishops who meet regularly to advise the pope, or an assembly called to consider or discuss a particular issue or issues.

The Synod on Synodality that officially got underway at the Vatican Oct. 9-10 is the latter kind. Pope Francis wants us – all of us, not just bishops – to participate.

Its official theme is: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.” It will last for at least two years, during which all Catholics are being asked to consider how the church can and should develop going forward.

Pope Francis wants to hear from all Catholics – devout, indifferent, disassociated, even hostile.

To learn more about the synod, you can check the website of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Vatican synod pages. The first phase of the synod occurs at the diocesan level, so you can also check your own diocese’s website to see if it has more about the process there and explains how you can get more actively involved.

Frankly, the opportunities for involvement appear to vary widely from diocese to diocese.

Great expectations

One diocesan source says the purpose of this synod “is to inspire people to dream about the church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission. The objective then is not just a series of exercises that start and stop, but rather a journey of growing together by using the synodal process on an ongoing basis.”

Wow! Talk about great expectations.

Although it’s clear that the synod’s purpose is not to make the church a democracy, it is to spark a process of interaction and dialogue which would have leaders routinely listening to the People of God as they proceed to govern. That’s huge.

In this sense, the synod is about developing a new way to lead and govern that apparently Pope Francis hopes will endure well beyond the specified 2-year period.

Period of decline

By many measures, the church in the United States is currently in a period of decline. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, between 1970 and 2020:

  • the number of parishes has declined from 18,224 to 16,703 – a drop of more than 8%.
  • the number of priests has declined from 59,192 to 35,513, a drop of 40%;
  • the number of yearly ordinations has dropped from 805 to 495, down 38.5%.

Membership up, participation down

Meanwhile, however, the Catholic population has grown. The number of Catholics registered in parishes has increased from 47.9 million in 1970 to 67.7 in 2020, up 41%. (Another measure -- the estimated number of self-identified Catholics in surveys – rose from 54.1 million in 1970 to 72.4 million, up almost 34%.)

Despite this growth, nearly every measure of participation in both the church and its schools has declined precipitously in that 50-year period -- including all measures of sacramental participation.

Portending a bleaker future regarding membership, between 1969 and 2019 infant baptisms have declined from almost 1.089 million to 545,710 -- a drop of 49.8%. Meanwhile, Catholic marriages have dropped from 426,309 to 131,827, a decline of 69%.

Closures common

In the face of a declining priest population and less Catholic lay participation, many dioceses have decided to close many of their churches under a vast mix of arrangements and euphemisms. Parishes have been closed, consolidated, clustered and merged.

On Dec 5 the Archdiocese of Cincinnati announced that it would consolidate its 208 parishes into 57 “families of parishes” that will begin sharing priests, staff, facilities and other resources early next year.

One priest in another part of the country who oversaw the consolidation of three parishes into one and construction of a new church told me he was the only priest in his diocese who stayed at the helm after a diocesan-wide series of consolidations.

A late vocation who developed a thick skin serving as head of community relations for a large public utility, he wasn’t flustered when he received death threats.

No easy answers

Diocesan leaders facing various kinds of declines don’t have to be told that the challenge is a complicated one. In nearly all places, the number of healthy, active priests fit to be pastors or parish administrators is driving parish closings. But that’s often not the whole story.

Some parishes just aren’t sustainable. Catholics once in their boundaries have aged and died, their neighborhoods now occupied by new people with no historical ties to Catholicism. Their pews and their coffers are nearly empty. They can’t go on for long. Many, it could be argued, have gone on far too long.

Of course, if current participation trends continue, there will be a lot more of these parishes in the future.

The costs of closing

But closing parishes – whatever name you want to give to it – has its costs too. People deprived of a church building to which they are emotionally and historically attached may just fall away from the practice of their faith. (It happened to my aunt, one of the most devoted Catholics I ever knew.)

In rural areas, closing a church can put many congregants a half hour or more from their “new” church, which then never becomes their church at all.

Reducing the number of churches in an area can turn out to have a long-term snowball effect: the more you close, the more you have to close.

 A nearly forgotten option

There’s a nearly forgotten option for bishops and dioceses that deserves renewed attention, especially in the midst of this Synod on Synodality.

It’s not a life raft for parishes that are truly languishing. But it would seem to have promise in areas where parishes are viable and the driving problem is the number of priests available for pastoral leadership.

The option involves turning over the day-to-day administration of a parish, including daily worship services, to a permanent deacon, man or woman religious, or even an ordinary layperson.

Believe it or not, that was done more often in the past than it is now.

When I first came into church ministry work in the early 1980s, two of the buzz-phrases I heard a lot were “priestless parishes” and “priestless Sundays.” Then, rather suddenly, I didn’t hear those phrases at all. What happened?

Numbers point the way

Numbers tell part of the story. In 1975, bishops across the U.S. had entrusted the care of only seven parishes to a permanent deacon or some other person. (Since they are not ordained, both women religious and religious brothers are technically laity.)

By 1990, that number had grown to 249. Then it continued to rise: to 314 in 1995; 447 in 2000; 553 in 2005.

And then, suddenly, it started to decline. Today there are only 298 such parishes in the U.S.  

What happened?

Behind the numbers

Initially, there was great concern that appointing permanent deacons, religious and laity to parish leadership roles would be resisted by parishioners. So wherever it occurred, it was regarded as an experiment.

Apparently, the experiment was too successful. People adjusted too well to deacons, religious and laity leading their parishes.

According to Peter Gilmour, professor emeritus with the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University in Chicago, “once the parishioners realized ministry continued, sometimes more effectively than past performances of some priest-pastors, most all embraced this model.”

Most of the early appointments were women religious, and I recall doing a story about two of them leading a small rural parish in Tampico, IL, birthplace of former President Ronald Reagan.

The sisters were delighted with their ministry, and members appeared to be too. As one of the sisters pointed out, their numbers alone gave them an advantage. For example, when women with children wanted to visit or be counseled, one of the sisters entertained the kids while the other met with the mother.

In some ways, the general success of the experiment should have been anticipated. Working with religious superiors, bishops could be choosy -- selecting only those women religious who seemed best suited for parish leadership and ministry. As Gilmour explains:

Most all of these early appointments of people other than priests to pastor parishes were religious women who were theologically educated, familiar with consensus-oriented decision-making in their respective religious orders, and employed this style of leadership in their newly found role leading faith communities.

Meanwhile, for priests the gateway into parish leadership is ordination, not relational skills. Many were extraordinarily gifted. Some were not.

Crossing a line

As parishioners got used to women religious leading their parishes, they sometimes expressed a clear preference for the women, even when it came to experiences of worship. It was not unusual to hear some of them say, “I like Sister’s Mass more than the visiting priest’s Mass.”

That crossed a line.

Women religious are not ordained. They could preside at “Communion services,” usually scheduled in lieu of weekday Masses. But they cannot celebrate Mass. Only priests can do that.

But when laity were reminded of that, it was not unusual to hear them say, “Yeah, yeah, close enough.”

That troubled just about every priest and bishop who heard it. And some even argued that putting non-ordained people in parish leadership positions, especially on the altar, contributed to the decline in priestly vocations by obscuring the distinction between ordained and non-ordained ministers.

I think that was a stretch. But I also think it was a crucial factor in reversing the trend and moving away from parishes being led by lay ministers, including women religious.

Another number

Another number may point to another factor mitigating against more priestly ordinations. In the 50 years since 1970, the number of parishes without a resident pastor has increased from 571 to 3,544.

Since all of those parishes are served by priests who are resident pastors elsewhere, the number of priests serving multiple parishes has to be more than 7,000, or nearly 42 percent of all pastors.

Gone are the days when diocesan priests could look forward to living in a small community of other priests living together and supporting one another. Today they are much more likely to be living alone. In addition to that isolation. some priests’ morale suffers as they come to see themselves as “sacramental ministers on wheels” -- basically attendants at “sacramental service stations” with virtually no time or energy for other types of ministry or to bond closely as the father of a single faith community.   

Could it be that contemplating spending your life in such circumstances discourages many men from exploring priesthood? I can’t be sure but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Some pitfalls

A bishop mulling over the prospect of putting brothers, sisters or generic laity in charge of parishes can anticipate some potential problems with that option. Apart from concerns about sufficient formation a bishop wouldn’t have the same kind of control that he has over his priests, raising issues of reliability.

Apart from a devout sense of priestly vocation, practical considerations can contribute to priestly obedience. A parish priest relies on his bishop for wages, room and board, and for retirement provisions. Moreover, if he spent his student years in the specialized environment of seminaries and didn’t obtain a degree in a field open to gainful, independent employment, he has few options to compliance.

In contrast, women religious have their communities that can sustain them, and lay employees can turn from parish service to the marketplace if they are chafing under hierarchical direction. In neither instance need the move be considered disobedience.

Being a diocesan bishop is not holiday today. And appointing non-ordained people to lead parishes is certainly no guarantee of a better quality of life.

No walk in the park

That said, the alternatives are no walk in the park either.

Closing viable parishes – no matter what name you give to it, no matter how much lipstick you put on the pig – is never a happy option.

Parishioners get angry. They feel betrayed. They organize. They stir up outrage and active resistance. They embrace the media. Some walk off in a huff. Others just drift away – be it to other faith communities, golf courses or, as one friend put it, the Great Church of the Innerspring.

In an organization operating under its founder’s direction to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20), closing down outposts built with the sacrifices of devout disciples in earlier times is a heart-rending choice.

Can we find a better way – one more consistent with our founder’s mission?  

That’s one of the things Pope Francis hopes and prays the Synod on Synodality will find out.

I, for one, am hoping and praying with him.