How will the declining number of priests affect parishes?
'Fourth Plan' projects 31 priests by 2022, five fewer in 2037

Retired priest Fr. Germain Rademacher visits with Cathedral parishioner Judy Hacker April 4 at the parish’s Lenten fish fry. In his 56 years of priesthood, Fr. Rademacher has gotten to know hundreds of Catholics in the diocese. He has also witnessed big changes in the numbers of priests available to serve the faithful. (Photo by Sam Patet)

Retired priest Fr. Germain Rademacher visits with Cathedral parishioner Judy Hacker April 4 at the parish’s Lenten fish fry. In his 56 years of priesthood, Fr. Rademacher has gotten to know hundreds of Catholics in the diocese. He has also witnessed big changes in the numbers of priests available to serve the faithful. (Photo by Sam Patet)

by Sam Patet
The Prairie Catholic / May 2014

NEW ULM – For many priests in the Diocese of New Ulm, Fr. Germain Rademacher is the man they call when they need a substitute over the weekend. Retired since 2003, he’s more than happy to put aside his gardening, woodworking, and other hobbies to help them out.

If you would have told him 50 years ago that he’d be spending his retirement pinch hitting for his brother priests, he probably wouldn’t have believed you. At the time, there was an abundance of priests, so much so that the newly ordained often spent their first 20 years of ministry as associate pastors, he said.

While this wasn’t the case for him (he only was an associate pastor for three years), his first assignment still demonstrates how many priests the diocese had at its disposal in the late 1950s. He was one of two associates at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm.

In addition to their parish responsibilities, they both taught religion at Cathedral High School – four hours a day, five days a week. That wasn’t just the case at Cathedral, Fr. Rademacher continued, but also at the diocese’s six other high schools. Each of them had priests in the classrooms.

“We never thought of being short-suited,” he said. “In those days … there were enough priests to fill the vacancies. And now, we have more vacancies than priests.”

Not enough priests

Coming up with ways to fill those openings has been at the heart of the diocese’s pastoral planning efforts the last 30-plus years. It has merged parishes, appointed pastoral administrators, recruited priests from foreign countries, and established area faith communities.

These measures haven’t kept the number of active priests from declining. When the diocese was formed in 1957, it had 98 of them. Today, it only has 40. And those numbers aren’t expected to increase anytime soon, according to the “Fourth Plan for Parishes.” It projects that the diocese will lose a quarter of its priests by the year 2022, a loss that will affect every parish in the diocese.

“We’re just not going to have the number of priests that we had to staff all of them,” said Msgr. Douglas Grams, vicar general of the diocese and director of the Priest Personnel Board (the committee that helps the bishop assign priests to parishes). “I’ve been intentional in inviting people to look at the data, which is very telling.”

In years past, many people assumed that there would always be enough men stepping forward to become priests, said Fr. Todd Petersen, vocations director for the diocese. After 11 years in that position, he knows that assumption hasn’t panned out. “We can’t just simply say that they’re going to come,” he said. “We have to go out and find them.”

Priest projection model spot on

While the diocese needs to redouble its efforts of promoting priestly vocations, it also needs to plan for a future with fewer priests. One way the “Fourth Plan” helps the diocese do this is through the priest projection model. Using data from the diocese’s 57-year history, it calculates how many priests the diocese will have through the year 2037. The model does not take into account international priests.

First, the model projects the rate at which priests will be leaving the active ministry. To do this, it tabulated the ages at which the diocese’s priests ended their active ministry, either by death or retirement, between 1957 and July 2012. Approximately 120 priests were included. “From this data, we were able to calculate the percentage of priests in each of 13 five-year age groups who, having served until the minimum age in the group, would still be engaged in active ministry five years later” (“Fourth Plan,” p. 131). These percentages determined the diocese’s future rate of priestly attrition.

The model also takes into account the number of men who will be beginning their priestly ministry. To do this, it used data from the diocese’s recent ordination classes. Between 1993 and 2012, 13 men were ordained for the diocese and had not left the priesthood during their first five years of ministry. That’s a rate of 6.5 ordinations every 10 years. The average age of the group at ordination was 31.

Using these three pieces of information, the model makes the following projections:

– In 2017, the diocese will have 34 priests in active ministry. By 2027, that number will have dropped to 28. And in 2037, there will only be 26.
– Even at a higher ordination rate (eight ordinations every 10 years), the diocese would see a 29 percent reduction in its number of active priests over the next 15 years, from 42 in 2012 to 30 in 2027.
– At a lower rate (five ordinations every 10 years), the prospects are even worse: just 25 active priests in 2027.

“No matter what ordination rate is used, the model projects that the number of active diocesan priests will decline to at most 30 at some point in the projection period,” the “Fourth Plan” concludes. “The diocese needs to begin preparing now for a future with at least 30 percent less diocesan priests than it has now. It is not a question of whether this will occur; it is only a question of when” (p. 132).

Two years after the projections in the “Fourth Plan” were calculated, the diocese is beginning to see them come true. Since July 2012, three priests have retired from active ministry. And while the diocese will gain a new priest by the middle of June, it will lose another through retirement by the end of the month. These changes will leave the diocese with 39 active priests by the middle of this year, an amount that corresponds with Figure 5.1 of the “Fourth Plan” (see page 7). The line graph projects that the total number of priests at the current ordination rate (represented by the blue line) will be in the upper 30s in 2014.

Not all of these active priests will be serving as pastors. Some, who are nearing retirement, are senior associates, while others are newly ordained associates.

Assuming, then, that the current ratio of senior associate priests to total active priests remains the same (one to seven) and that priests 35 years old and younger are recently ordained associates, the “Fourth Plan” projects that the diocese will have 23 pastors in 2022. Currently, there are 23 area faith communities, two stand-alone parishes, and one quasi-AFC, all of which need pastors. If a priest is expected to be pastor at one AFC or stand-alone parish, then the number of AFCs and stand-alone parishes will need to decrease by three.

No relief in sight

No matter how the diocese reconfigures its parishes and AFCs in the years ahead, it seems inevitable that priests’ workloads will increase considerably.

“I go out weekends and I just see our priests working so hard,” Fr. Rademacher said. What “they’re doing today … I did not have to really be too worried about.”

Today, for example, most priests are assigned to more than one parish. That means they’re attending multiple parish meetings, maintaining multiple church buildings, and celebrating multiple Masses every weekend in multiple towns. Up until 1970, Fr. Rademacher was only assigned to one parish. And even when he was both pastor and diocesan chancellor starting in 1964, his parish – St. Gregory the Great in Lafayette – was only 12 miles from the Pastoral Center.

“We didn’t have that shifting of gears from one parish to the other,” Fr. Rademacher said. “You had more peace of mind, I think, in terms of the day-to-day ministry because it was so localized.”

Fewer Masses, more involvement

In order to make priests’ workloads more manageable, the “Fourth Plan” proposes several changes that all parishes can enact.

One is to reduce the number of weekend Masses. As Figures 5.15 through 5.20 show, most parishes aren’t filling their church buildings to capacity on the weekend. Of the 128 weekend Masses that were celebrated at the diocese’s 76 parishes in 2012, only 30 of them – less than 25 percent – had congregations that on average filled at least half of their church buildings. Parishes could save priests hundreds of hours a year simply by removing one Mass per weekend (“Fourth Plan,” p. 138; see Figure 5.14).

Another solution the “Fourth Plan” gives is for priests to involve deacons more in their sacramental responsibilities. Certain celebrations – including weddings, funerals, and baptisms – have traditionally been handled solely by priests. Not only can deacons celebrate them, but they’re also more than qualified to help prepare individuals for them.

For Msgr. Grams, this involvement shouldn’t stop with ordained ministers. In certain cases, the lay faithful can help priests. “Funeral preparation does not require ordination,” he said. Priests need to be hiring the right personnel, he continued, so that they can maintain their physical, psychological, and spiritual health.

Msgr. Grams’ call for all the faithful to exercise the priestly, prophetic, and kingly offices they received at Baptism won’t just help make priests’ workloads more manageable. It also will inspire men to consider a priestly vocation. Why wouldn’t they be motivated to give God a chance if they see their family, friends, and coworkers living out their Catholic faith with peace and joy?

“More and more I think we need the New Evangelization to really take root in our diocese,” Fr. Petersen said. “When there’s good evangelization – when the young and not so young are invited to be disciples and encouraged to be followers of Christ – that translates into a vocation, whether it’s being more committed to their marriage relationships or being more committed to discerning the priesthood or discerning the religious life.”

So while Fr. Rademacher doesn’t know what the future holds for the diocese, he’s confident that the Holy Spirit has been guiding – and will continue to guide – the Church in the years ahead.

“We need to rely on that as much, if not more, than first, second, third, fourth plan to lead us and to guide us in our faith and our relationship with God and one another.”