A shortage of priests and sisters? Maybe not

By | April 8, 2009

Second, we can look at demographics of the Catholic Church in the United States in comparison with the rest of the world. Whether you look at global data from right after Vatican II or from the past five years, the view is the same. The Catholic Church in the United States sits in a place of privilege as compared with the vast majority of Catholics in our global community. We had and continue to have more “priests-per-capita” than the vast majority of the world.

Discerning a vocation

Dr. Kristina DeNeve will present, “A Shortage of Priests and Sisters? Myths and Misunderstandings in Discerning a Vocation,” 7 p.m. Thursday, April 16, Bosco Hall, diocesan complex, 1825 Riverside Drive, Allouez.

The presentation is open to parents, grandparents, catechists, teachers, young adults and all interested in vocations. Registration is required so that sufficient materials are available. RSVP to [email protected] or call Debbie Rusch at (920) 272-8316, or 1-877-500-3580, ext. 8316.

In 2006, there was one priest for every 1,510 Catholics in the U.S. In contrast, Mexico (one to 6,276), Kenya (one to 4,343) and the Philippines (one for 8,478) have fewer priests. Only India has a better ratio than us, with one priest for every 786 Catholics.

Now, this is not to ignore the perception that it sure feels like we have a shortage. Northeastern Wisconsin currently does not have a priest in active ministry for each of its 160 parishes. There have been many linkages, mergers and closures in the area over the past 15 years and the shortage of priests and religious women has been understood as one of the reasons why these changes were necessary.

We see with our own eyes. However, “our own eyes” can only speak to our lifetime, whether that be 20, 40, or 80 years. If 1940 to 1960 was the “golden age” of the most priests and religious, then each decade since 1960 can be expected to have fewer and fewer priests and religious, a reality we have seen play itself out.

We can explain this statistically by saying the American church is returning to its historical average after the outlier (a statistical “blip”) of so many men and women religious in the mid-20th century. You may have heard of this same phenomena in analyses of the stock market, called the “return to the historical average.”

Most importantly, as Christians, we know that what we can see with our own eyes is not the entire story. The final reason why it is not really appropriate to speak of a “shortage” of priests and religious is that it does not fit the Gospel.

At the wedding in Cana, Jesus did not just turn water into wine. He did so in overwhelming, mind-boggling abundance. Not only was it the best wine the steward had ever tasted, the amount of wine in those jars would have been equivalent to giving every single wedding guest four to six liters of the best wine ever. This is equal to three of those big soda pop bottles we buy in the store!

The story of the prodigal son(s) is not so much a story about two sons who ask for forgiveness (or not). It is a story of the overwhelming, ever-abiding love of a father in the midst of two sons who each break every norm and more of their culture! Through Jesus and the paschal mystery, which we commemorate this very week, we experience firsthand how God is overwhelming goodness, love and abundance.

Approaching the issue of the number of priests and sisters out of despair and as a problem to be solved is contrary to the Gospel. It is contrary to how we stand in this world, as a light and beacon of hope. God and the church help us see the cup as always half-full, never half-empty. With Jesus’ death and resurrection, the cup is actually overflowing, even when it looks completely empty!

DeNeve is Spirituality and Evangelization director for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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