Dr. Taylor Marshall had a recent post on the state of the priesthood by the numbers. The “priest to Catholics” ratio (taken from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown) indicates that in 1950 there was one priest to every 652 Catholics in the United States. In 2016 that ratio had dropped to one priest to every 1,843 Catholics. As Dr. Marshall notes, our priestly manpower is operating at 33% of what it was in 1950. He notes that dioceses with strong, orthodox formation (such as Lincoln, Nebraska, where the ratio is one priest to every 598 Catholics) are better suited to weathering this storm. Orthodox dioceses also tend to form orthodox families who are less likely to contracept and more likely to welcome children who, in turn, are more attracted to the priesthood. But the bulk of priests reaching retirement age is happening currently, and the “replacement rate” of new ordinations is not keeping step.
The Catholic Church is unlike any other Christian denomination or church. The priesthood is at the heart of her identity; the function of the clergy is “essential and irreplaceable,” as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has noted. This is the very thing Protestant denominationalism rejects. And yet the Church is not a democratic or merely social institution; she is supernatural, sacramental, and apostolic by her very nature.
Taking priests for granted
Cultural Catholics have a lamentable propensity to take the Faith for granted, not just in identity but in the availability of the sacraments. Getting a child baptized is “just what you do,” even though many marriages among baptized Catholics are not taking place in churches today. One may or may not see the need to attend Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation and may never darken the door of a confessional.
And yet, when you speak to any earnest convert who has come into the Church, they do not embrace Catholicism because of the coffee and donuts, the fellowship, the music, or the amazing ministry opportunities. Talk to any convert during their initiation period and you will quickly find that there is an almost painful yearning for the Eucharist when they cannot yet receive it. There is for many an urgent desire to confess their sins verbally to a priest and to receive sacramental absolution. Those afflicted by demonic possession and serious oppression intuitively know that their local Presbyterian minister or non-denominational pastor is not equipped with the spiritual authority and sacramental weapons necessary to deliver them from the powers of darkness. Talk to any convert and you will know that the roles of the priest and the sacraments are essential and irreplaceable to the exercise of faith. We are willing to sacrifice for what we value.
While we must pray in earnest for men to be workers in the Lord’s vineyard as priests, there is also the very real possibility that many areas of our country will enter into mission territory due to lack of priests. Living in the Northeast, I can drive to ten different parishes within a ten-mile radius. Finding an Orthodox priest may be somewhat more challenging, but even so, the sacraments are available with minimal sacrifice on my part in terms of driving distance or wait times because, even though priests are aging, they are still available.
A hunger we have not known
But, I fear, a time is coming when people will seek absolution for their sins and find, not a priest unwilling to open the door, but no priest at all. A time is coming when people will notice they are hungry for the Eucharist, for the Holy Mass, for a blessing—the very things we take for granted today—and they will go away hungry because there is no priest to feed them. Faithful Catholics will want to have their children baptized, want to get married, and will find waiting lists months long. The churches they knew from their youth will be museums. Those in mortal sin will beg for a priest to hear their confession and will not be able to find one. Those possessed by demons will have no recourse, and exorcists will be so overwhelmed they will have no choice but to turn people away.
We are entering the mission era of the Church in the United States. You would be wise to prepare yourself now with spiritual food for the journey, with the Eucharist, daily Mass, Confession—because the hunger years are around the corner. Avoid mortal sin like the plague. Fast and pray for the Lord to call up mighty warrior priests who are not afraid to go into the fray. Get your own house in order so you can evangelize as a living example to others. Be open to life and welcoming of children. Instruct them well and be intentional about passing on the Faith and living it out. Encourage your sons to become priests if it is God’s will for them. Catholicism is not like other Christian denominations. No priests means no Mass. No Mass means no Eucharist. No Eucharist means no life within you.
Next time, God forbid, you find an excuse to skip Mass, or find yourself at a baptism or wedding, or take the Eucharist for granted, remember the demographic clerical cliff we are approaching. Make provisions now, put oil in your lamps, and await the Bridegroom. Be a saint, or die. And pray you find yourself lucky enough to have access to a priest in the mission field.