Freelance | November 25, 2002

St. Louis' shrinking priesthood

by Josh Renaud

The Rev. Bill Kempf does double duty--serving as parish priest at St. Ann's in Normandy, and serving as director of the Catholic Newman Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Kempf had been working at the Newman Center for 3 years when he was asked to take on additional duties at St. Ann's. These days, he hardly has a free moment.

"I've had to learn multi-tasking," Kempf explained.

He's not alone. Across the St. Louis area, the archdiocese is trying to find ways to serve a growing church with a shrinking number of priests. It's not a new problem, nor only a local one.

The church is losing an increasing number of priests to retirement or death as the pool of priests ages. Meanwhile, the number of students to replace them is dwindling.

There were almost 12,000 American priests at the turn of the 20th century, according to figures from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The number of priests rose steadily and peaked in the mid-1970s at about 59,000. But by 2001, there were 45,386 priests serving in the church.

Catholic seminary enrollment has been even bleaker. The number of seminarians peaked in the mid-1960s at about 39,000. In 2001, there were only about 4,900 studying to become priests.

Locally, the trends are the same. In 1992, there was 525 diocesan priests, both active and retired, according to the Rev. Kevin Callahan, director of priest personnel for the St. Louis archdiocese. Ten years later, there are 411 serving 200 parishes.

During those ten years, 107 priests died, 33 left the priesthood, and 7 moved to other dioceses to become bishops.

The math is simple: There are more priests going out than there are coming in.


Frank Flinn, a professor of religious studies at Washington University, says he believes the church will soon face a "sacramental crisis."

There are seven sacraments: eucharist (or communion), baptism, confirmation, penance, holy orders, matrimony, and anointing of the sick. Priests provide these sacraments to baptized Catholics, called the laity.

"The essence of Catholicism is the provision of sacraments," Flinn said. "They can't provide them when they don't have enough priests.

"The church can't deliver its goods. It's like the company that can't deliver its product."


There is more demand for the sacraments now. While the number of priests has been shrinking, the population of American Catholics increased. In 1975, there were 48.7 million Catholics in the U.S. Today there are 63.6 million.

In St. Louis and around the country, the church has been encouraging Catholics to come to receive the sacraments.

"We have an archbishop who's encouraging people to go to confession more often. Well, do the numbers," said the Rev. Tom Santen, pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Manchester. "There's no way that I and two other guys can hear 10,000 confessions a month."

The lack of priests is also affecting church ministry outside the parish. Santen said it has reduced the church's ability to provide pastoral care to the sick, hospital priest chaplains, and ministry in high schools and universities.


There are some who don't see the current situation only as a priest shortage. Where others see a vacuum, they see opportunities.

The Rev. Mike Butler, director of vocations for the St. Louis archdiocese, says people shouldn't think of the 1950s as the norm. The large number of priests then was more of an aberration, a blip on the radar of church history.

"I think we became spoiled in the 1950s," Butler said. "Before then, I think for some people Mass was a spectator sport. They did what the priest told them to."

Butler and others consider Vatican II, a council held by the Catholics from 1962 to 1965, the point when the attitude of the laity began to change.

Since Vatican II, the church has seen a tremendous number of lay people assume more responsibilities within the parish, as well as move into ministries outside the parish.

"There's a burgeoning of new ministries--women's groups, Bible studies--that we didn't have before," said Ann Garrido, director of field education at the Aquinas Institute.

There are 30,000 people studying nationwide for lay ministry, according to Garrido and Kempf. There are only about 4,900 men studying for the priesthood.

"Maybe all these years we've been praying to God for vocations, and this is God's answer," Kempf said.


Today's parish is different from that of 50 years ago. A parish then might have had 3, 4, or 5 priests. The priests generally handled all the parish's needs. But today, those same parishes often have only 1 or 2 priests.

"The priest of the parish used to be a jack of all trades," said Kempf.

But priests can't afford to be that anymore. Instead, lay people and deacons have taken some of the responsibilities formerly handled by parish priests.

Santen explained that priests have had to change their mindset. When a need arises at St. Joseph's parish, Santen doesn't ask "Who's the priest who can do this?" Instead, he asks "Who's the person who can do this?"

At St. Ann's parish, lay people handle business affairs, administration, maintenance and other matters. This frees Kempf to focus on providing sacraments and other pastoral care.

Many lay people also receive training in theology at schools like the Aquinas Institute so that they can assist in ministry.

"There were always a lot of volunteers in the parish who handled the social functions, like running the picnic," said Callahan. "Now there's more and more volunteers who help the priest visit the sick in hospitals, or bring communion to the homebound."

In St. Louis, the permanent deaconate is a relatively new phenomenon. It was brought back into existence only about 25 years ago. Deacons are clergy, trained in theology, and equipped to perform some--but not all--of the sacraments. In places where there is a critical shortage of priests, deacons often perform duties normally associated with priests, like preaching.

There are two kinds of deacons: permanent and transition. Permanent deacons are often married, and they remain deacons for life. Transition deacons eventually move on and are ordained as priests.

These changes are exciting to some. Santen said that at St. Joseph's, the parish is more vibrant.

"You come here on a weekday and you'd be hard pressed to find an empty room," Santen said. "People are exercising leadership, they're excited about possibilities. It's a whole different way of being church that responds to where people are."


The laity and the deacons can't do everything, though.

"We'll never get away from the fact that you need qualifications and expertise to deal with certain situations," Santen said.

Priests administer the sacraments, and the sacraments are the heart of the Catholic church. It's hard to have a parish if there's no priest available, even with an active laity and several deacons.

In St. Louis, the archdiocese has begun consolidating parishes. A recent example is the merger of three parishes on Union in south St. Louis. The new parish will meet in a large Benedictine monastery building. Six priests served the three parishes, but the new parish will likely only have two, according to Callahan. This will allow the archdiocese to move the other priests to parishes who need them.

"As we feel the crunch, there will be more and more closings and mergers," Callahan said.

Merging parishes is not an easy thing to do. It's a big change that makes many parishioners uncomfortable or even angry.

"It's a hardship to some people," Callahan said, "but it's not like we're asking them to drive 20 miles to go to church."

And often, a merged parish can be more vibrant. Its larger pool of resources will enable it to do ministries not possible as smaller, separate parishes.


In St. Louis, the true magnitude of the priest shortage isn't as clear as it is in cities with fewer resources.

"We haven't had to take measures as drastic as Detroit or Milwaukee," Callahan said. "In St. Louis, we're unique because it's such a Catholic place. There's a church every mile."

This year, eight men will be ordained as priests, Callahan said. He anticipates there will be two ordinations next year. Other cities have gone many years without any ordinations at all.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, the Baltimore archdiocese faced a serious enough situation that it recently adopted a 15-year plan in May to combat the priest shortage.

Its plan includes several measures St. Louis is takings as well as some it isn't. The plan calls for recruitment of more foreign-born priests and implementation of a training program for them; greater use of parish clustering in scheduling Masses and confession; better utilization of deacons; use of parish business managers and other lay ministers to handle administrative duties; and requiring all seminarians to learn Spanish.

St. Louis doesn't have a formal plan targeting the priest shortage.

"You can say we're trying to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or we're just stumbling along in the dark, depending on your perspective," said Santen. "We're really learning as we go."

Will parish clustering, consolidation, and more lay ministers be enough? Will St. Louis eventually have to recruit priests from other countries or take other drastic measures, as cities like Baltimore have done? Possibly.

But some critics say all these measures are just band-aids. They claim the priesthood itself needs to be changed.

"Given the pressures of modern life, celibate, single, isolated priests don't make sense anymore," Flinn said.

Flinn said that the Catholic church has ignored the example of other denominations like the Eastern Orthodox, the Anglicans, and other Protestant churches, which have married clergy.

"They're trying to hold onto this ideal of celibacy which is only a pragmatic ruling in Catholicism," Flinn said.

He's not alone. Garrido believes there are enough potential priests available.

"God is sending plenty of priests, but the current vocations coming forward don't fit our box of who can be a priest," Garrido said. "Right now we'd rather have male celibate priests than have Eucharist available every Sunday."


Most priests acknowledge that the church probably took vocations for granted in the past. They point out that this shortage has had a benefit: waking Catholics up to the importance of recruiting people for the priesthood.

"The priests are out there. We just forgot how to ask," said Butler. "Are people praying for priests? Are they asking people to become priests?"

Butler says studies show that many young people do consider joining the priesthood. But family and society often discourage them from following through.

Kempf believes vocations is one of the reasons the archdiocese kept him at the Newman Center at UMSL. College students are at an age when they are making big decisions about life, he said.

"If they run into a priest and a ministry that's alive, vital and a good way of life, it's attractive," Kempf said. "I seldom hesitate to invite people to this ministry, because I love the life and it's a chance to do something that's real."