The Case of the Disappearing Priests

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I was going to entitle this article “The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Priests,” but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out what’s happening to the number of priests in the Diocese of Providence.

It’s pretty simple: We have significantly fewer priests to serve the spiritual and pastoral needs of the Diocese than we had just a few years ago.

For a long time we’ve known that this day would come and now, indeed it has. Our priests are aging and we’re not ordaining enough new priests to replace those who are retiring. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated significantly in just the past year.

According to my count, this year alone 13 priests have to be replaced – primarily because of retirements and the departure of religious orders from the Diocese. However, we’re ordaining only 3 new priests this year. The math is easy – that’s a net loss of 10 priests available for assignment in the Diocese.

And the picture for the immediate future isn’t any brighter. According to our projections, by June of 2014, nearly 20 parishes will have a pastor 70 years of age or older, i.e., beyond the retirement age. While some of our priests may choose to work beyond age 70 – and indeed some already are – we can’t expect that our priests will work in the active ministry forever, especially when the aging process and ill health takes its toll. In contrast to the 20 priests reaching retirement age, within the same two-year period, from now until June of 2014, only 6 new priests are slated to be ordained.

Will this shortage make a difference in the pastoral care of the Diocese? Absolutely! Will the average Catholic in the pew notice any changes? You bet!

For example, in the years to come, some parishes may have to close, be merged or share their resources – including their priests – with other parishes or assignments. Sometimes parish structures change not because of the lack of a priest, however, but because the demographics have changed; the people have moved away. It’s not feasible to have a priest assigned to a parish with 200 families when another parish is nearby, and when in other parts of the Diocese one priest is trying to take care of 1,500 families. And in some cases, the dreadful financial condition of a parish threatens its viability, but that’s an issue for another day.

Because of the shortage of priests, other changes will occur as well. Some parishes that have three priests will no longer have three; some that have two will no longer have two; and some parishes might need to share their priest with another parish or pastoral ministry. Even this year, for example, there are six parishes that have been reduced from two priests to one. And we have one less priest available for hospital ministry.

The declining number of priests could mean that your parish Mass schedule will change. Priests can’t bi-locate and by law they’re permitted to say no more than two Masses on a weekday and three on a Sunday. So, instead of three Sunday morning Masses, there might be only two. And when the Mass times are re-arranged, you might show-up for Sunday Mass to find your favorite pew occupied by someone else. If your parish has specific language needs – Spanish or Portuguese or Polish for example – we might not be able to meet those needs right now.

These are just a few changes that Catholics in the pew might see in the coming days. As you can imagine, the rapidly changing situation will require everyone’s cooperation, flexibility and generosity.

I promise you, we’re doing everything we can to provide for pastoral care in the Diocese. We have judiciously accepted seminarians and priests from other countries and religious communities. The exemplary work of our Permanent Deacons, those already serving and the new class soon to be ordained, is greatly appreciated and will increasingly provide assistance for our pastoral work. Nor should we forget for a moment the wonderful service provided by lay ministers in many of our parishes.

Inevitably someone will say that the Church needs to welcome other candidates for the priesthood, such as married men and also women. That discussion is only a distraction, however, and does nothing to address the current need. Celibacy is a longstanding and important part of our Catholic tradition, and the fact that priestly ordination is reserved to men alone is a well-defined and oft-explained doctrine of the Church.

Most of all, we’re working very hard to promote vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of Providence. As of this writing we have about 20 seminarians, truly good, young men, but we need at least double that number. This is an urgent priority for the entire Church. Priests, parents, teachers and youth ministers have to be vocation directors, eager to identify and encourage those young men the Lord may be calling.

The really good news in this report is that currently, nationwide, and even here in New England, our seminaries are now filled with prospective new candidates for the priesthood. It will take several years for these seminarians to be ordained and begin their ministry, but help is on the way!

So, despite the real and present challenges we’re facing, there’s no need for despair or discouragement. Here in the tiny State of Rhode Island we’re still fortunate to have 145 parishes, scattered throughout the State, where people can easily gather to worship, learn and serve. And the Diocese is richly blessed by good and generous priests who are working hard everyday to care for God’s people. The Church is in good hands. But ultimately, our hope is in the Lord who promised: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” (Jer 3:15) I believe that God keeps His promises.