Each year the gap widens: Fewer priests are available to serve an increasing number of Roman Catholics in the United States.
Since 1966, the number of men in seminaries seeking the priesthood has plummeted from 48,000 to 7,500. By the year 2000, according to surveys produced for the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, the projected decline from resignations, deaths and fewer ordinations will leave only 15,000 active parish priests--about the same number as in 1925 and less than half as many as in 1966--to serve an estimated 65 million faithful.
At the turn of next century, the average age of these priests is projected to be 65.
"The vocation shortage is long-term, not just temporary, and the church is powerless to reverse . . . the social pressures causing the downturn," declared Dean Hoge, a professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington.
This shortage of shepherds for a growing flock has already made a sharp impact in most dioceses. One in 10 U.S. Catholic parishes has no regular priest. In Chicago, the vocations director fears that the present average of two priests per parish in the archdiocese will slip to only one by the year 2000.
In response to the shortage, the church is training deacons and lay men and women to do tasks formerly reserved for priests. At the same time, the effort to find priests is focusing on candidates from the growing Latino and Asian Catholic populations. Some dioceses are also using novel recruitment approaches, such as advertising for priesthood candidates in national magazines.
But despite the bleak vocations picture, the church has no nationally coordinated program to reverse the trend. And there is no movement at the Vatican to consider changing the celibacy requirement for priests, which is the most frequently cited reason that more men do not pursue the priesthood.
A recent Vatican report on college-level seminaries frankly acknowledges that "pressures on the family, the attraction of material prosperity and social comfort, the sexual revolution and the growth of insecurity, as well as a delay in the age of personal career decision-making, have all had their effect."
- Within 25 years of their ordination, 42% of all U.S. priests have resigned. Younger priests are resigning in greater proportion than older ones.
- One of every six men who were ordained as priests are now married, thus eliminating them from priestly service. Of those under age 50, one of every three is married.
- Overall, Catholic seminaries are replacing only about 60% of the priests who resign, retire, are disabled or die.
Two decades ago, 7,855 men were enrolled in the final four-year-program of the nation's Catholic theological seminaries that leads to ordination; today there are only 3,826.
"In the pool for the next four years we have less than half the potential that we had in 1969," lamented Benedictine Father Adrian Fuerst, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an independent Washington-based agency that supplies information to the church's decision makers.
In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where 1,280 priests serve an estimated 3 million Catholics, 10 men were ordained last year. This year, only five or six will be ordained. The average for the nation's 10 largest archdioceses last year was about nine new ordinations each.
"If we had 20 a year, we could come close to holding our own," said Msgr. Edwin O'Brien, rector of St. Joseph's Seminary in New York City, where 10 men will be ordained in May.
A recent survey of 600 Catholics between the ages of 16 and 21 in the Los Angeles Archdiocese revealed that the single greatest obstacle to their choosing a religious vocation was the "lifetime commitment to celibacy" required to enter the priesthood and religious orders.
"Celibacy is always No. 1, and a permanent commitment to a life style is second as the reasons young men don't become priests here," echoed Father Scott Donahue, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Despite the problems in recruiting candidates for the priesthood, Fuerst said, there is "no national thrust, no concerted effort by the bishops as a national group."
"Although there is concern, the (seminary) enrollments are still declining," he said.
The closest thing to a unified approach is the Called by Name program. Adopted in several forms by many dioceses, the program works at the parish level.
Members are asked to identify young people they think might be interested in religious vocations and supply their names to the diocesan vocations director, who in turn writes the youths asking them to consider a vocation and to attend an orientation meeting.
"It's a very positive idea," Fuerst said. "It makes others aware of the importance of becoming part of the whole recruitment picture."