Peter Garcia

Peter Garcia

This article is the second in a series covering each of the six foundational principles of Beacons of Light, the pastoral planning process of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

“Let us be witnesses. Let us radiate Christ.” With these words, Archbishop Schnurr challenged the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic faithful to embrace the call to make Christ present in the world.

In his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis proposes a vision of the local parish as a “center of constant missionary outreach.” The Beacons of Light pastoral planning process gives each parish an opportunity to embrace this vision.

What does it mean for a parish to be a center for missionary outreach?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “center” with multiple meanings. One is “a facility providing a place for a particular activity or service.” We might visualize a healthy parish this way, imagining a church campus bustling with activity every day of the week; a one stop location for all spiritual and communal needs. However, an evangelizing parish is much more than that.

This alternative definition is a better consideration: “A source from which something originates.” Viewed through this lens, the Church, primarily in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, is the origin of missionary activity that radiates outward to all the world. Pope Benedict XVI uses nuclear fission to illustrate the connection between the Eucharist and mission, in that each time we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, He sets off a transformation in us that cannot be contained, but radiates outward. It transforms the world around us as we become more empowered to be witnesses for the Gospel and heroically love our neighbors.

To truly radiate Christ to the world, Families of Parishes must first have missionary initiative toward each person in their parish boundaries. In his Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis expresses great hope in the parish institution because of its potential to be flexible, adaptive and creative with evangelizing efforts. It must choose “a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation” (Joy of the Gospel, 27).

Beacons of Light affords precisely this opportunity for each Family of Parishes to “transform everything” by striving for these six goals: 

  1. Missionary Discipleship: The Family of Parishes will implement a simple and clear evangelization process that ultimately equips and commissions missionary disciples, in every stage of their lives, for personal apostolates and vocations.
  2. Grounded in Discernment: The pastor, staff and lay leaders prioritize prayer, formation and discernment, both for themselves and the faithful,  so that they allow the Holy Spirit to inspire and guide their evangelization efforts.
  3. Family Partnership: Because the family is the primary place of evangelization for young people and parents are the primary educators of their children, families are well-supported by the parish.
  4. Prioritize Adult Formation: Priority for forming the faithful in evangelization and catechesis is directed toward adults, who can share that knowledge with others and use it in forming their children’s faith at home.
  5. Effective Schools: As an essential parish ministry, the parish school fulfills its purpose to be an “effective vehicle of total Christian formation” for young people and their parents.
  6. A Culture of Vocation: Families of Parishes will prepare individuals to discern and embrace their vocations by helping them recognize and respond to God’s unique call for their lives.

By embracing these six goals, Families of Parishes will become vibrant centers for missionary outreach and true beacons of light.

By Melanie Speicher, article originally published in Sidney Daily News . View original article here.

Family is taking on a new meaning for Catholic congregations of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

According to Jennifer Schack, director of media relations for the archdiocese, a comprehensive pastoral planning process is underway through the Beacon of Light. The plan calls for the establishment of Families of Parishes to be formed thoughout the 19 counties in the archdiocese.

Schack said comments about the Families of Parishes will be accepted until Wednesday. The goal is to finalize the draft which is being created and to announce which churches will be in each Families of Parishes in late November.

The planning and implementation within each Families of Parishes, under the leadership of each pastor, will unfold over the next several years.

“In February/March we’ll announce the priest assignments,” she said. “In July 2022, it will go into effect.

“There will be 60 Families of Parishes for the entire 19 counties of the archdiocese,” she continued. “There are 109 pastors today. In July there will be 60 pastors.”

Some of the decrease in the number of pastors can be attributed to retirements, she shared.

“As the pastors move into retirement, the young are not going to become pastors. The number of pastors is going to be down significantly over the next few years,” said Schack.

And now is the time to continue bringing the congregations into one parish through the new program.

“The goal of the Families of Parishes is that they (churches) will come together for one mass schedule. There will be one parish council serving one community. We’ve been working toward this for a number of years.

“It will be up to each parish to support the pastors to lead them to one parish.”

Each Families of Parishes will be led by a common m pastor and share resources available in each church.

Schack said the Families of Parishes will be sustainable for decades to come. The archdiocese is hoping that churches will be filled during the weekly/daily masses.

From 2010 to 2019, sacramental practice (including baptisms, first communions, confirmations and weddings) in the archdiocese declined by 23%.

The first phase of Beacons of Light involved gathering and analyzing parish demographic, sacramental, financial, and school data and trends. In addition, priest availability was analyzed and projected.

The Beacons of Light is different from previous planning processes.

The previous planning processes resulted in “clusters” or “regions” of free-standing parishes under a common pastor. Beacons of Light intends to go further by supporting each newly formed Family of Parishes in becoming a fully integrated community of faith with the expectation of becoming, over time, one canonical parish.

Each Family of Parishes will begin by bringing parish staff and pastoral councils together. The pastor, staff and councils will discern Sunday Mass schedules and locations. The pastor and lay leaders will develop a plan for parish programs and activities with a long-term goal of becoming one community of faith. The disposition of all parish assets, including church buildings, will be decided within each Family of Parishes based on particular circumstances and opportunities. The expectation is that, over time, a Family of Parishes will become one canonical parish. A parish can be made up of a single church or multiple churches.

“It will take time for everyone in each Family of Parishes to work together,” said Schack. One of the expectations is for the parish to move to holding one large festival instead of one per church. Smaller events, such as an ice cream social, could still be held at each church.

“The Family of Parishes will make that decision for their group, ” she said

Schack said they have received more than 4,000 comments about the Beacons of Light and Families of Parishes. Each comment has been read and recorded for review.

Shelby, Auglaize, Darke and Miami counties are all part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Melanie Speicher

By Thomas Gnau, article originally published in the Dayton Daily News. View original article here.

Comment period starts today as some parishes are pointed to uncertain futures

Citing pressures from a shrinking number of priests and declining membership, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Friday released its draft plan to reorganize parishes across Southwestern Ohio.

“The status quo is no longer an option,” the archdiocese said in a release. “At this point a comprehensive pastoral planning process is a necessity in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to garner stability and position the diocese for growth.”

Today’s churches and Mass schedules were built for a “different era,” the archdiocese of more than 440,000 Catholics also said. “In many cases, our church buildings are grossly underutilized.”

The average Sunday Mass is about one-third full, the archdiocese said.

More than a year in the making, the draft does not point to the immediate closing of any parishes or schools.

Instead, parishes are grouped in what the Archdiocese calls “families.” Decisions about scheduling of Masses and use of resources will be made within those groups, with the expectation that, over time, some parish buildings could be used less, closed or reduced to the status of a “chapel” or an “oratory” — no longer regularly open for Sunday Masses, archdiocesan leaders said.

A “family” of parishes may decide it does not need all its church campuses, Archbishop of Cincinnati Dennis Schnurr said in an interview video on the Archdiocesan website. “We can accomplish this with fewer campuses — and then there may be the decision to reduce a parish church to the status of an oratory or a chapel.”

He added: “But that is going to decided by the family of parishes. It’s not going to be decided by me … or the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.”

‘Staying where we are is not a possibility’

The order of parishes listed in the draft plan has no special significance, an archdiocesan spokeswoman said.

“There is no type of ordering of parishes in the family lists,” spokeswoman Jennifer Schack said. “And there is no lead parish as part of the design of the families.”

The plan also does not immediately address the future of parochial schools tied to parishes, but leaves those choices to local parishes.

“It is accurate that the future of Catholic schools will be decisions made by the families of parishes at the local level after implementation of the families (plan) in July of 2022,” Schack said in an email to this newspaper Thursday.

The reorganization was crafted by a consultant, then reviewed by Schnurr, priests leading 12 deaneries across Southwestern Ohio and others, the archbishop said.

Consultant Partners Edge LLC, based in the Minneapolis area, drafted a “current realities” demographics report for the Archdiocese.

The company said it provides dioceses “systemic and detailed assessment of your current conditions, strengths and challenges” and creates “scenario models of your future vision conditions.”

Area priests were supposed to get a look at the draft Wednesday.

St. Marys Catholic Church on Xenia Ave.

In an interview before the release of the draft, Schack said, “We’ve gotten to a place where the projection is: Staying where we are is not a possibility. So there will need to be a restructuring, there will need to be a new arrangement for our hopeful future.”

The next steps include a comment period on the draft until Oct. 20. The final reorganization announcement is expected by late November. Implementation is set for July 1, 2022.

A website to offer comments is expected to be open today at BeaconsAOC.org, officials said. Comments may also be sent to: Beacons of Light c/o Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 100 E. Eighth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202.

‘If I were alone, it would be a different ballgame’

Rev. Satish Joseph already leads the parishes of St. Mary and Immaculate Conception in Dayton and St. Helen in Riverside. If the draft becomes final without alteration, his group of parishes would widen — at least at first — to include St. Anthony and Holy Angels parishes, both in Dayton.

Joseph said in an interview that his first reaction to the draft is that it’s a draft.

“There are bound to be changes,” he said.

The goal of the effort is to position parishes for growth, not simply “maintenance,” he said.

His expectation is that he and other pastors will have help, that there will be parochial vicars and associate pastors who will help him and other pastors in a job that might be seen as daunting. “When the workload is higher, I’m sure there will be more than one person helping,” he said.

He added: “It’s impossible for one person to do this by themselves. It’s also dependent on the fact that I will have help. If I were alone, it would be a different ballgame.”

“Am I taking this as an easy task?” Joseph said. “No. But with the help of other folks, nothing is impossible.”

The next steps include a comment period on the draft until Oct. 20. The final reorganization announcement is expected by late November. Implementation is set for July 1, 2022.

A website to offer comments is expected to be open today at BeaconsAOC.org, officials said. Comments may also be sent to: Beacons of Light c/o Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 100 E. Eighth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202.

‘Our priests are stretched to the limit’

While the Catholic population in Southwestern Ohio has fallen about 16% since 1970, it’s the drop in the number of priests that has presented a substantial challenge.

In 1970, the archdiocese counted 417 active diocesan priests, approaching 450 available priests total, serving about 259 parishes at the time.

While there are different ways of counting priests, an archdiocesan report points to about 160 active priests today (in his video, Schnurr put the number at 150) serving about 208 parishes — a reduction in the number of priests of some 61%, compared to 51 years ago.

“These priests have been asked to do more and more,” Schnurr said in the nearly 20-minute video. “It is already impacting the health and well-being of our priests, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically.”

“In particular, our priests are stretched to the limit, and we will have fewer priests who can serve as pastors over the coming years,” the archdiocese said in a statement accompanying the release of the draft plant.

The number of archdiocesan priests available for assignment is projected to decline by another 20% over the next five years.

In addition, religious practice has been declining in both the United States and in the archdiocese. From 2010 to 2019, sacramental practice — baptisms, first communions, confirmations and weddings — in the archdiocese declined by 23%.

This is a draft of a reorganization of Archdiocese of Cincinnati parishes.

Thomas Gnau

By Dan Horn, article originally published in the Cincinnati Enquirer. View original article here.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati on Friday launched one of the most ambitious reorganizations in its 200-year history, potentially changing when and where almost a half-million Catholics attend Mass, school and other activities connected to their faith.

Known as Beacons of Light, the restructuring process will combine the archdiocese’s 208 parishes into 60 “families of parishes,” which will begin sharing priests and resources as early as next year.

Unlike past attempts to remake the archdiocese, which rarely got out of the planning stages, Beacons of Light is backed by Archbishop Dennis Schnurr and will in some way touch almost every Catholic and priest in the archdiocese’s 19 counties.

The goal, church officials say, is to eventually unite the 60 new parish families into single parishes.

Check the database: How will your parish be affected?

Mergers of such magnitude, which could take years to complete, would eliminate more than 70% of parishes that exist today, transforming the archdiocese and setting the stage for the possible closure of churches and schools.

Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr Provided

Schnurr said the reorganization is needed because of a decades-long decline in the number of priests, and because of demographic changes that have left some churches and schools stranded in areas with falling Catholic populations.

“The way our parishes are functioning in this archdiocese, it just is not sustainable any longer,” Schnurr said in a video posted on the archdiocese’s website. “We need to undertake this.”

He said he believes Beacons of Light will revitalize all the archdiocese’s parishes, allowing them to combine operations, share financial resources and create more opportunities for Catholics to engage fully with their faith.

The archbishop acknowledged, however, that many Catholics will be wary of the coming change.

Parishes are not only the center of spiritual life for Catholics but also often the heart of social and cultural life. From schools and sports teams to festivals and fish fries, parishes have bound generations of Catholics together.

Church officials have learned from previous parish and school mergers that tinkering with that bond can stir anger and anxiety.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that change is difficult,” Schnurr said.

Further complicating matters are the legal and financial logistics of bringing together parishes with different populations, facilities, traditions, leadership and bank accounts. Some are growing and in good financial shape, while others are losing people and money.

The Enquirer

Though the archdiocese oversees all the parishes, it doesn’t directly run them. Each essentially operates as a small nonprofit, running its own fundraisers and hiring its own support staff. Combining them into groups raises questions about how they will share resources and decide the fate of their schools and churches.  

The archbishop is the spiritual and administrative leader of the archdiocese, but he can’t order parishes to close or merge. Those decisions must be made by pastors and parish councils in the new parish families.

There is no roadmap for how that process will work, or how it might vary from parish family to parish family, because the archdiocese has never attempted anything on the scale of Beacons of Light.

“It’s going to require all the Catholics of the archdiocese to step into a place that we haven’t been before,” said Jennifer Schack, the archdiocese’s spokeswoman. “It’s going to challenge each of us.”

The Rev. Steve Angi hands out Holy Communion during Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter in Chains on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Cincinnati. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Tough decisions coming soon

The archdiocese covers about 8,500 square miles of cities, suburbs and farmland, so the task of consolidating more than 200 parishes was daunting.

Schack said top church officials and the archdiocese staff worked alongside consultants to come up with a plan that made sense not just for the central office but for individual parishes.

They leaned heavily on geography, trying to group parishes that weren’t spread too far apart, but also considered other factors, such as ties to religious orders or common traditions such as the Latin Mass.

The result is a new map of the archdiocese, one that groups as few as two parishes and as many as 11 into new families that will, if all goes as planned, eventually become single parishes.

Eight parishes will remain on their own. They include large suburban parishes, such as the Community of the Good Shepherd in Montgomery, large urban parishes, such as Holy Family in Dayton, and more isolated parishes with no easy geographical match, such as St. John the Baptist in Harrison.

More common are groupings of four or five parishes spread over dozens of square miles. Some are clustered closely together – most of the parishes in East and West Price Hill, for example, are in the same family – while others cover significantly more ground.

One parish family includes parishes in Reading, Sycamore Township, Deer Park, Pleasant Ridge and Norwood. The largest includes 11 parishes northeast of Dayton spread across Champaign, Clark and Logan counties.

Although many of the expected changes to parish life are likely to unfold over years rather than months, Catholics will see an immediate impact.

The first step will be the creation of new parish councils to represent all the parishes, instead of the individual parishes. The next is the appointment of pastors in the spring to lead each parish family.

The most visible change, at least early in the process, will likely be to Mass schedules. Pastors and parish councils will have to decide which churches get which Masses to accommodate everyone in the new, bigger parish families.

The tougher decisions on whether to close or consolidate schools and churches will likely come later.

“Beacons of Light is not focusing on closing parishes at all,” Schnurr said. “We want these families of parishes to work together and, over time, assess their needs.”

But as they do so, Schnurr said, closures may become an option. “Some family of parishes may come to the conclusion that we really don’t need all of these campuses,” he said. “That is going to be a decision by the family of parishes. It’s not going to be a decision by me or anyone at the archdiocese.”

Congregants kneel during a celebration of Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter in Chains on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Cincinnati. Albert Cesare / The Enquirer

Time to speak up

Most priests got their first look at the families of parishes plan this week, and the nearly half-million Catholics in the archdiocese saw it for the first time Friday after maps were posted on the archdiocese website at midnight.

A 20-day public comment period is now open, so church officials will find out soon how much support or criticism their work will receive. Comments can be made on the archdiocese’s website at catholicaoc.org, where more details about Beacons of Light also can be found.

Some Catholics who have followed the work on Beacons of Light, which began about a year ago, expressed anxiety about it in the weeks before the maps came out. One concern was whether lay Catholics would have enough input in the process.

“I see it as being a struggle,” said Janie Allen-Blue, in an interview with The Enquirer before the maps were released. As a member of Bond Hill’s Church of the Resurrection, which was part of a four-parish merger a decade ago, Allen-Blue said she knows how difficult it can be to bring together parishes with different social, cultural and financial backgrounds.

Her parish now will join with three others in Cincinnati to form a new parish family, meaning another merger could be coming.

“I’m not trying to be negative,” Allen-Blue said, “but parishioners didn’t come up with Beacons of Light.”

Bruce and Jan Seidel, who are members of two Cincinnati parishes, said they understand the problems Beacons of Light is attempting to address and see it as an opportunity to bring together a more diverse group of Catholics in the new parish families.

But both said they’re concerned the archdiocese didn’t involve more lay Catholics in the process sooner. The couple is active in Voice of the Faithful, which encourages more lay involvement in the church, and worry some Catholics may resist Beacons of Light if they feel it’s being imposed on them.

“We might not like change, but we’re not stupid,” Jan Seidel said. “It’s not a good sign to give us a package that has already been packaged.”

Schnurr urged Catholics to speak up during the comment period, and church officials have said they understand that alienating large swaths of the Catholic population would be counterproductive to their goal of improving Mass attendance and engagement with the church.

“We want to involve as many people as possible in this process,” Schnurr said. “We want to hear from our people.”

It’s unclear, however, how many changes the archdiocese would be willing or able to make to the draft maps released Friday. Tweaks around the edges may be possible, but church officials invested significant time and resources to produce those maps and are unlikely to tear them up and start from scratch.

“The reality is there has been a lot of work done,” Schack said. “We do not anticipate broad changes.”

Though a core group of staff and consultants did most of the work, the archdiocese has been sending updates to parishioners via email and weekly church bulletins since last year. The message has been consistent: Change may be difficult, but it is necessary.

Nowhere has that point been made more clearly than in a 177-page report prepared earlier this year on the archdiocese’s population, finances and schools.

According to the report, Mass attendance in the archdiocese declined 22.5% between 2010 and 2019, Catholic school enrollment fell 14% over the same period, and the number of priests, which has been declining for decades, was projected to drop another 18% by 2031.

The report also found the archdiocese’s demographics continued to shift unfavorably. The Catholic population here is getting older – baptisms declined 19% in the past decade – and the Catholic share of the population fell from 14.2% to 11.9%.

Schnurr said he’s optimistic the archdiocese is turning things around. He said the seminary’s enrollment has doubled from 30 to 60 in the past decade and most parishes are on solid financial footing.

But the report concluded that much of the archdiocese today is built for a world that existed a century ago. To prepare for the next century, Schnurr said, big changes are needed, even if they’re difficult.

“If we just want to stay in one place,” he said, “time will pass us.”

Dan Horn

By Brendan Hodge and JD Flynn, article originally published in The Pillar . View original article here.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati announced this month a major restructuring initiative that could eventually close 70% of the 211 parishes in the archdiocese. 

While headlines about parish closures and the declining number of priests in the U.S. are hardly new, the dramatic scope of Cincinnati’s plan is noteworthy — especially because it raises questions about the future of the Church across the U.S. 

A quick look at the data shows why the archdiocese needed to take action

In 2019, Cincinnati had 211 parishes but only 143 diocesan priests in active ministry, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). That situation, the archdiocese has said, is not sustainable. Its plan is to group parishes together, assign priests to share pastoral duties, and gradually see parishes formally merged.

As the archdiocese begins its project, we at The Pillar found ourselves wondering: Is Cincinnati’s dramatic plan for parish closures a sign of what’s to come across the country, or is it responding to a problem unique to the Cincinnati archdiocese?  

We looked at some numbers to find out.

A lot of parishes

Given its size, the archdiocese has an unusually high number of parishes.

The Cincinnati archdiocese has the eighth-most parishes of any diocese in the U.S. Its 211 parishes follow closely behind Newark (212 parishes), Philadelphia (212), and Detroit (218). 

But while Newark, Philadelphia, and Detroit each have more than one million Catholics, the Cincinnati archdiocese has only 442,000 Catholics.

The disparity between the number of parishes and the number of Catholics is due, in part, to the changing demographics of the region. While the total population of the region has grown over the last 60 years, it is becoming less Catholic. The Catholic population of the archdiocese peaked in 1996 and has been dropping for the last 25 years.  

At its peak, 19% of the region’s population was Catholic. At latest count that number has declined to 14.5%.

Sixty years ago, JFK was president, the first session of Vatican II had not yet begun, and the Baby Boom-fueled growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S. was in full swing. And the Cincinnati archdiocese already had an unusually high number of parishes: In 1960, Cincinnati had the ninth-most parishes, but its Catholic population was ranked 20th. 

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati had 264 parishes in 1960, compared to 240 in Newark and 219 in Brooklyn. But Cincinnati had fewer than 500,000 Catholics that year, while Brooklyn and Newark each had more than 1.4 million.

For a diocese its size, why does Cincinnati have so many parishes?

The history of the region may be part of the reason. The archdiocese includes all of southwestern Ohio, encompassing both a number of rural areas and two cities: Cincinnati and Dayton.

Rural parishes often serve small numbers of Catholics, especially in those parts of the country in which parishes were established before widespread automobile ownership.  (It was only in the 1940s that the number of U.S. households with a car reached 50%.)

Southwestern Ohio experienced dramatic population growth between 1900 to1960. Hamilton County, in which Cincinnati is located, doubled in population during those 60 years, and Montgomery County, containing Dayton, more than tripled. During the growth of that period, it might have seemed reasonable to the diocese to plan for ongoing growth in the years ahead.

Adding to the number of parishes, the archdiocese has been home to several large immigrant communities from
 Catholic parts of the world. Because of cultural and language differences, German, Irish, and Italian communities often built separate parish churches in ethnic city neighborhood, often within blocks of each other.

That phenomenon is common in many East Coast and Rust Belt dioceses, and has led to parish closures in many of them, as mostly non-Catholics now live in many of those neighborhoods.

Populations move, churches stay in place

Within the Cincinnati archdiocese are counties which now have three times the population they did in 1960, and others which have shrunk.

Both Hamilton and Montgomery Counties, home to Cincinnati and Dayton, have fewer people than they did in 1960. At the same time, suburban and exurban areas have experienced dramatic population growth.

The result is that within the same archdiocese there are some parishes that once held hundreds of families every Sunday, and now see only a few dozen. At the same time, other parishes struggle to provide enough pews and parking for the people who come to Mass each week.

The local phenomenon is a microcosm of a broader national trend: The Cincinnati archdiocese is not the only place to discover the inconvenient fact that church buildings remain in place when people move elsewhere, both within a diocese, and at a macro-scale, between dioceses.

Across what is sometimes called the Rust Belt, several dioceses have seen their Catholic populations fall by more than 30% since 1960: Scranton, Syracuse, Youngstown, Buffalo.

At the same time, other dioceses have more than doubled in size during the last 60 years: Atlanta, Dallas, San Diego, and Houston have seen Catholic populations explode amid an overall national population shift toward the South and West.

In some ways, a Catholic attending Mass at an overflowing parish church in Dallas, who was baptized in a now-empty parish in Saginaw or Albany, is representative of the overall flow of Catholic population in America.

The result is that even as churches are closed or merged for lack of attendance in some areas, other places are building new churches for those who have moved within the U.S. or immigrated from outside the country.

But will those population shifts really mean that Mass attendance can be projected to grow in places with a growing Catholic population? Will suburban Ohio, or metro Houston, need to accommodate the same number of Catholics who once worshipped in shrinking cities like Cincinnati? 

In the long term, that seems unlikely.

In addition to uncertainty about whether Catholics will return to Mass after the coronavirus pandemic, and growing institutional disaffiliation on the whole, demographic data indicates other challenges for the Church in the years to come, both in the Cincinnati archdiocese and across the country.

An aging population and shrinking parishes

Like the rest of the U.S, the Cincinnati archdiocese has experienced demographic shifts as a result of falling fertility and increased lifespans. While the total population of the archdiocese has grown, the number of people under 20 reached its peak in 1970, and has been falling since then.

With a median age of 38, identical to the national average, the region has similar demographic patterns to many parts of the Midwest and Northeast. The total population of the Cincinnati region is increasing because of longer lifespans, but fewer children born mean a decreasing population is likely in the years to come. 

That change is reflected and amplified in the life of Catholic parishes. Recent generations have become less likely to actively practice their faith. In Cincinnati, like the U.S. as a whole, that means a decreasing numbers of parents have their children baptized.

Not Enough Priests, Not Enough Parishes

Shrinking dioceses tend to see shrinking numbers of vocations. And in many dioceses undergoing significant population growth, the number of registered Catholics per parish is already too large for one priest to realistically serve.

The Diocese of San Diego has 97 parishes for its 1.4 million registered Catholics; more than 14,000 Catholics per parish. Las Vegas, another diocese in which Catholic population has grown rapidly in recent years, has more than 20,000 Catholics per parish. 

And yet many growing dioceses also face a shortage of priests. And ironically, some of the fastest growing dioceses will struggle to ordain enough priests for new parishes, even when they have a steady or growing number of seminarians.

Cincinnati’s experience offers a window into the Church’s situation across America.

Like many dioceses throughout the country, Cincinnati has seen a sharp decline in the number of priests in active ministry over the last 60 years. In 1960 the archdiocese had 469 diocesan priests in active ministry, while by 2020 that number was only 143.  

Priestly vocations in the archdiocese have increased in recent years.  The archdiocese has 60 seminarians in formation, and over the last five years it has ordained an average of 5.4 new priests per year. 

The average age of American priests ordained in 2020 is 34. If Cincinnati maintains its current rate of vocations, and if the average priest is in active ministry for 35 years before retiring, Cincinnati’s number of active diocesan priests will increase from its current 143 to 189 in the coming years.

Other dioceses are in a similar position, with ordination rates suggesting the number of priests will grow in coming years. This effect is particularly strong in dioceses in which the Catholic population has grown significantly in the last 20 years. But for dioceses which have trouble already staffing parishes— whether because of population growth or a currently insufficient number of priests —  the increase in numbers may not be enough.

According to CARA, the average newly ordained priest lived in his diocese for 17 years before entering the seminary. Once a priest is ordained in a diocese, he remains there typically for decades. The result is that it can take decades for the number of priests to catch up to the Catholic population in a rapidly growing diocese, even in a diocese with a strong focus on vocations. 

The Archdiocese of Denver is experiencing that type of effect. The archdiocesan Catholic population grew from 373,500 in 2000 to 603,965 in 2020. With its current ordination rate of 6.2 priests per year over the last five years, Denver’s number of priests will likely increase from its current 140 active diocesan priests to around 217 priests in the coming decades. But with its rapidly growing population, Denver may well need to build more parishes. 

While 200 priests would be sufficient to staff the 124 current Denver parishes, planners at the archdiocese would most likely find that adding parishes to accommodate population growth would put them in again in a hole in the future.   

Other high-growth dioceses, like Houston, Dallas, and Austin will have more priests in the future than they do now, but will also need to assess carefully whether a prospective increase in priests will be enough. 

In parts of the country with historically high Catholic populations, but where the number of Catholics has been shrinking in recent decades, diocesan leaders will face the opposite problem. 

Chicago’s 487 active diocesan priests may be sufficient for the 316 current parishes of the archdiocese, but with an average of 8.2 ordinations per year, the number of active priests in the archdiocese will fall to around 287 in the coming decades, forcing tough decisions about parishes. 

Similarly, Newark will likely see the current population of 375 priests fall to around 308 over the next few decades.

Such analysis assumes, of course, that all other factors impacting vocations and Catholic population will remain the same. Changes in fertility, immigration, faith formation, and the shifting culture will play out in ways that are harder to foresee. But the basic mission of the Church is to minister to all peoples. That means that as populations move, whether across town or across the continent, the Church will need to continue moving and adapting as well, if it is to bring Christ to the world.

And that, Fr. Del Staigers told The Pillar, is what the Cincinnati project aims to address.

‘It has to work’

Fr. Del Staigers is the pastor of St. Veronica Church and St. John Fisher Church in suburban Cincinnati — in a county that has grown considerably in recent decades.

But Staigers says that while his parish has seen population growth, participation in the parish and overall Mass attendance are on the decline. The priest said that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that decline.

“We’re about half to two-thirds of where we were in attendance on weekends [before Covid].”

Staigers said that when he surveyed his parishioners recently, he found that many people have not returned to Mass because they remain concerned about the pandemic, or they are caring for medically vulnerable loved ones. He said he does expect many to come back. 

“I got no indication that people are staying away because they want to,” he said. “That’s the good news….I got no indication that people are saying ‘we’re mad at the Church and we’re leaving forever.’” 

The priest noted high levels of engagement with the parish’s social service initiatives, and at the parish school. 

At the same time, Staigers said that changes in the parish indicate a very different future for the Church in Cincinnati.

“I was telling my associate, who has had three weddings in two years, how different that is from when I was first ordained, in 1987 — it would be nothing to have one or two weddings a weekend for a while. And that’s just not the case, now.” 

Without weddings, Staigers said, he’s not sure how many families will be active in the parish, or its school, where many of the most committed parishioners send their children.

Staigers said those changes indicate the importance of planning for the future.

“We’re like a lot of dioceses, in that we’ve got communities of people spread out that could be much more effective if we were pulled together more,” the priest added.

Staigers said parishioners in larger suburban parishes may not see the whole picture of the archdiocese, and that educating Catholics about the need to consolidate parishes and share resources will not be easy.

“They see the same three priests every weekend. They see churches that are reasonably full, active parishes, parking lots that can get crowded. They may not have the same sense as other parts of the diocese…that what they experience may not be what other parts of the diocese are seeing.”

“I’m guessing for the first three, four, or five years, it’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting for the clergy. I hope it gets lighter after that.” 

Staigers told The Pillar that priests in the archdiocese have “a healthy dose of fear [about the consolidation project], because it’s so hard to see what this is really going to look like.”

He mentioned that previous efforts at pastoral planning in the archdiocese, most recently in the late 1990s, had not gained much support among the presbyterate.

Still, he said, he believes the effort could be good for priests. He said the initiative will invite laity to take on more responsibility for parish life.

“The paradigm is being shifted dramatically. And no matter what age, or how long you have been doing this, there is a sense of fear and uncertainty. ‘Cause we want it to work out. We know it’s got to change. No matter what age clergy members are, we know it’s got to change because we just can’t keep doing everything we’re doing.” 

“I mean, I think if we’re smart about this, we’re going to engage a lot more parishioners to do a lot of the things that we’ve been doing,” he added. 

Staigers recalled that when he was ordained in 1987, he imagined “I’d be a pastor in a suburban parish, and it would be stable and I’d have two associates.”

Instead, he said, he has multiple sites to serve. That’s “rewarding” in its own ways, he said. But “as we get, you know, thinner and thinner, spread out more and more, that’s harder and harder.” 

“We’ve been spreading our priests out more and more. And now we’ve gotten to where we’ve realized we just can’t keep spreading this out, especially as the number declines.”

The burden priests face, Staigers said, is only one part of the challenges the Church faces. The numbers say the same. That, the priest said, is why Cincinnati, and many other dioceses, need to be sure they’re planning wisely for the decades ahead.

“I’m guessing most people are probably thinking that it is only because of a priest shortage. And that’s one part of it. That’s one little brick. It’s an important part, but it’s not the whole part.”

For the Church’s future in Cincinnati, Staigers told The Pillar, the consolidation process “has to work.” 

For now, in his parish, Staigers is focused on gratitude. 

“I’ve really been trying to focus on that whole stewardship mentality — that we realize how blessed we are. And so the only natural thing for us to do is to come together and give thanks.”

Brendan Hodge

Freelance writer