Shortly after I moved to Cincinnati, the archdiocese received a new shepherd, Archbishop Schnurr. — Lest it seem that I am taking my bishop to task in the following remarks, I declare plainly that I am not. — Our new archbishop brought with him a vocations prayer that he had written some time before.  That prayer for vocations has been said at innumerable Masses during the past 5 years, and I am glad for it.

However, every time I recite the prayer, I think the same thing, Where is the recognition of responsibility?  It seems like every prayer for vocations that I have seen has neglected to recognize where priests come from.  New priests do not fall from the sky like manna from heaven.  They are, by and large, the product of Catholic families.

Who’s Who

To be clear, by ‘Catholic family’ I do not mean the family that goes to Mass less than every Sunday and holy day, because to spurn one’s most basic obligation to worship God as He commanded is a grand defiance far from the Catholic faith.  It is not a family that regularly chooses extracurricular activities over catechesis.  Soccer and scholarship hopes never trump spiritual formation, though I admit that a balance needs to be found.

See, in most cases, the formation of a priest begins in his early youth, when he is taught by example that the most important thing in the world is the Church and her sacraments, which exist for the salvation of souls.  The first seminary is the home.  Without this formation, the consecrated life is nearly unfathomable.

To be frank, I’m surprised that we do not have fewer priests.  After all, it isn’t really a question of raw numbers but of ratios.  After the 1950s, the Church in America experienced a boom in vocations that kept the priest-to-diocese ratio above 1:1 for nearly five decades.  Today, we have settled back into our pre-1950 numbers.

But what of the priest to parishioner ratio?  That, unfortunately, is a little harder to answer, and the numbers I have read are a bit inconsistent.  More than that, it is never terribly clear if the numbers are counting absolutely anyone who self-identifies as Catholic, regardless of whether they actually show up on Sundays.  For my part, I suspect the ratio hasn’t changed much.  Here are a few numbers from CARA and the U.S. government to support my hypothesis:

____ 1965 2014
Parish-connected Catholics 46.3m 66.6m
Infant baptisms (prior year) 1.31m 713,302
Live births 3.76m 3.96m
Adult baptisms (prior year) 126,209 38,042
Catholic Marriages (prior year) 352,458 154,450
Total U.S. Marriages 1.8m 2.16m
Percentage of Catholics attending Mass atleast weekly 55% 24%
Diocesan priests 35,925 26,265

Reading the Data

A parish-connected Catholic is one who is “on the books,” whether they attend Mass or not.  Of course, we don’t have anything much better to go off of since actual mass attendance recording is rare.  That said, let’s take a brief look at what little we can find about actual Mass attendance.  Here are a couple quotes to consider together:

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has collected attendance data from all its parishes since 1961. In the subsequent 35 years mass attendance fell by almost half, dropping from 205,000 to 107,000. Yet two surveys of community residents in the three-county archdiocese area (one in 1972 and one in 1996) reveal a very stable Roman Catholic population and a stable proportion of Catholics who say they attended church. The net result is an increasing gap between saying and doing. Actual mass attendance dropped while self-reported attendance remained the same.

Asked which sacrament was most meaningful in their lives, 39 percent of respondents named baptism, 26 percent said marriage and 25 percent named the Eucharist. Among those who said they attended Mass weekly or more often, 52 percent said the Eucharist was most meaningful in their lives.

The first quote indicates that, at present, only about half of people who are reporting weekly Mass attendance on surveys actually do what they have claimed.  The data from CARA corroborates that idea, and I would argue, the second quote does as well.  After all, what percentage of people who faithfully go to Mass every Sunday would declare that a sacrament other than the Eucharist is most meaningful?  Consider too the massive drop in percentage of U.S. weddings that are Catholic, from 19.6% to 11.8%.  The drop in percentage of babies receiving a Catholic baptism fell from 34.8% all the way to 18%.

Surprising Results

So, if the number of parish-connected Catholics weighted by the percentage of actual Mass-goers is reasonably reflective of actual attendance, that means that the ratio of diocesan priests-to-Mass-going-parishioners has gone from 1:709 in 1965 to 1:609 in 2014.  That is a decline of 14%…on the part of the LAITY!  The priest-to-parishioner ratio is actually better today than it was in 1965!  It’s the best it has been in a long time.

In other words, our years of praying for priests have been blessed by God.  He has heard us, and He has given us more priests per lay person than we had fifty years ago.  Thus, it is not the laity who have anything to be complacent about.  We have our priests.  It is God’s ministers who ought to be asking why the flocks are so small.  Actually, we, the flock, ought to be asking the same thing.  From all indicators, we have failed to evangelize our friends, our neighbors, and even our own children.

This is the point where it would be momentarily satisfying to point fingers and lay blame, but I won’t.  I have no right to do those things.  What I can do instead is to pray, and I hope that you will join me in this prayer:

Heavenly Father, you have richly blessed your Church with sacraments that restore, support, and strengthen us on our earthly sojourn.  We rely, LORD, most of all on your Holy Eucharist and on Holy Orders, without which your people could not be fed.  Help us, Father, to restore in our homes a profound gratitude for these sacraments that specially communicate your grace, that your Church might grow in number and in holiness.  Give to parents and caregivers the wisdom and humility necessary to raise up God-fearing men and women, who are prepared to receive your gift of vocations.  We ask these things through the intercession of Mary, our mother and the first catechist, in the Holy Spirit, through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.