“Stem parish closures and mergers”; Association of US Catholic Priests

Dan Morris-Young  
An association of nearly 1,200 U.S. priests is in the final development stages of issuing an urgent “plea” to the U.S. bishops to “formulate a plan now to meet this emerging crisis” of parish closings and consolidations.
In a working draft it calls a “Proposal for Pastoral Care In & Thru Priestless Parishes,” the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests exhorts the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and “dioceses nationwide” to quickly address the issue.
Core to the plan is “new and more specific exploration” of lay ecclesial ministers to oversee non-sacramental aspects of parish life and administration, according to a proposed plan cover letter contained in an email to NCR. (Text of the email is below.)
The email and cover letter to Association of U.S. Catholic Priests members asks input on the plan’s working draft and notes that:

  • 30 percent of U.S. Catholics have left the church;
  • Church marriages have declined 60 percent since 1980;
  • “Apart from Hispanic members,” Catholic total membership is declining.

In developing the plan, the cover letter stated, “We have relied on the USCCB’s 2005 document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, as well as the 2015 Tenth Anniversary Reflection on that document. Co-Workers welcomed Lay Ecclesial Ministry and addressed the wide field of ministries that involve laity.”
The proposed text itself warns, “If USA Church leadership postpones dealing with this issue, the window of opportunity will slowly close” and result in “greater collapse of parishes,” “a loss of morale and health among priests,” and “further decline of the morale and trust of people who depend upon us to meet their spiritual needs.”
As our Catholic presence diminishes, so will our presence in society in all of its aspects,” the plan draft states.
Obviously, the hard work of passing on the faith demands more, not less, personal presence of authorized pastoral ministers, ordained or non-ordained, working in collaboration and within the principle of subsidiarity,” says the cover letter.
The letter adds, “We need a nationwide … firm and uncontested basis for dioceses to employ lay pastoral ministers to lead parishes” and “we … hope it will spark our bishops’ collective attention to this critical issue.”
Fr. Bob Bonnot, chair of the AUSCP leadership team, said the effort grew out of deliberations at the group’s fifth national assembly last year in Chicago.
It is part of our growing concern with the continuing decline of priests available and the pattern of closing/merging parishes to deal with the lack of priests to serve communities,” the retired priest of the Youngstown diocese said in an email.
The AUSCP “welcomes input from any credible source,” Bonnot said. “We want the document to be as strong, well-crafted and representative as possible.”
Fr. John Hynes, a priest of the Wilmington diocese, and Fr. Ray Cole of the Methuchen diocese co-chair the “working group” developing the proposal, Bonnot said.
“We are in the process of contacting bishops to seek support for presentation, and are determining where and when it will be formally presented,” Cole told NCR. “We do have an episcopal moderator, Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester.”
[Dan Morris-Young writes for NCR’s Field Hospital series and covers the West Coast.]
The text of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests proposal follows:
The AUSCP Working Group on “Pastoral Care for Priest-less Parishes” has prepared a draft PROPOSAL FOR PASTORAL CARE IN & THRU PRIESTLESS PARISHES, found below. We want and need your input. So please review and comment.
Send all comments to the Working Group co-chairs, John Hynes and Ray Cole: jhynesscs@aol.com, fray43@yahoo.com
Or, reply to office@uscatholicpriests.org and your comments will be forwarded.
As well, please share it with your bishop, vicar general and others. Ask for their insights into this proposal for addressing a critical pastoral reality.
Comments received by February 10 will be most helpful.
Dear ____________,
We write regarding our concern that as we move from the present into the future the church in the United States assures pastoral presence to the people of God. Our pastoral experience together with the well-known and worsening shortage of priests convinces us that our dioceses and all of us need a plan which we can adapt to our local situations develop to meet the emerging needs.
To that end we have prepare the attached proposal regarding Lay Pastoral Ministers in Priest-less Parishes. In preparing it we have relied on the USCCB’s 2005 document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, as well as the 2015 Tenth Anniversary Reflection on that document. Co-Workers welcomed Lay Ecclesial Ministry and addressed the wide field of ministries that involve laity. It explained our dependence on these baptized Catholics to continue the mission of the Church in collaboration with their pastors. Both Co-Workers and the 10th Anniversary reflections affirmed that they were not the final word on this critical area of Pastoral Care.
Our proposal is a new and more specific exploration LEM. It addresses a dimension of great concern to priests pastoring more than one or even many parishes: adequate and effective pastoral care and presence to the people of God. It urges that dioceses nationwide begin developing lay pastoral leaders now. Consider:

  • The present state of most Dioceses in the USA, Canada, Western Europe and Australia shows aging clergy (average over 60 years old) often pastoring consolidated parishes or multiple parishes. Actuarial tables show that in five more years some dioceses will lose half their active priests through retirement or death. (cf. attached table from the Diocese of Evansville)
  • These figures tell us that much of the pastoral leadership and work that Catholics received from priests in the past will no longer be provided. The Catholic Church USA urgently needs pastoral ministerswho know the faithful, guide and accompany them in the journey of faith via the parish community. Statistics show that
  • 30% of baptized Catholics in the USA have left the Church;
  • Church marriages have declined 60% since 1980;
  • apart from Hispanic members, Catholic total membership is declining.

Obviously, the hard work of passing on the faith demands more, not less, personal presence of authorized pastoral ministers, ordained or non-ordained, working in collaboration and within the principle of subsidiarity. This proposal invites our leaders, the US Bishops, that we need a nationwide to provide give a firm and uncontested basis for di­­­­oceses to employ lay pastoral ministers to lead parishes. Our proposal is attached. We respectfully submit it and hope it will spark our bishops’ collective attention to this critical issue.
Fraternally in Christ,
The Pastoral Task: i.e. What they are to do, is the central issue. Key elements:

  • Leadership– to create a vision with the parish community: “the purpose for which we are here,” and form persons in the faith and train them for ministry and service.
  • Care: – To visit the faithful, especially in time of sickness and death, but as much as possible, know and be known by all and to be present to the whole community.
  • Governance: To take responsibility for the day to day coordination of parish activities, and take initiative as need to motivate, to correct, and to affirm persons who work in the parish ministries; and where needed, provide conflict resolution and reconciliation. To be a true pastoral leader he/she must lead worship where appropriate, and likewise break open the Word. In short, he/she would be in the role of pastor, excepting sacramental ministry, and under the supervision of the canonical pastor. (per Canon 517.2)

The persons: Who are the potential pastoral leaders?
There are many persons presently active in our parishes, whether pastoral staff members, deacons, or members gifted with charisma for ministry. We speak of proven individuals. Given the local nature of this ministry, it would be advisable to choose from the involved parish itself, or a neighboring one. The pastoral leaders will be appointed by the bishop and be under the supervision of a canonical pastor nearby, while still having the flexibility to make ordinary decisions and actually lead the parish according to its gifts and needs. Canonical Pastors, too will need training and a desire to embrace this manner of ministry. Diocesan Offices must be included in this training also. Most especially, the people of God in a parish must be involved in this process and own it or it will be a failure from the outset.
Training and formation would be as needed in individual cases. This is primarily a Pastoral Role which demands spiritual and pastoral preparation as well as managerial skills. Persons would in some cases, have quite a bit of spiritual formation and managerial expertise, while others may have little.
Remuneration and Status: Pastoral leaders who are expected to be involved 5 or 6 days in the work should be paid a commensurate salary, with proper benefits. They should have the job tenure that other professional ministers and Church employees do. Statutes created and approved by the USCCB should protect the status of these ministers from dismissal without cause, or because a new ordinary or pastor would not accept the program. Those who would accept the presence of this form of ministry and accept formation/training would be best suited to continue it.
Prophetic Importance: These Lay Pastoral Leaders will provide a very important proving ground for the USA Church because we would learn what men and women, married and unmarried, can accomplish as pastoral leaders, and what kind of persons we need. We will gain a great deal of wisdom about what works and what doesn’t work. In a larger framework, it would show how the priesthood of the future might discern proven individuals.
A special urgency to begin now arises from the fact that presently, due to the large number of retiring priests, we have many sacramental ministers available on a flexible part-time basis. This will be true for the next ten to fifteen years. This is a providential time to initiate Pastoral Leaders of Priest-less Parishes. With many sacramental ministers, available for part time service, we can ensure Sunday Eucharist and basic sacramental ministry for most of the parishes who are without a resident priest as pastor while we work out the dynamics for the future. It is unquestionable that time, creativity and courage will be needed to make all the adjustments. Time will also be needed to properly train Pastoral Leaders.
The Experience of some dioceses: The experience of various dioceses (including Jackson, Baltimore, Seattle, Saginaw, Scranton, Harrisburg and Camden) with lay or diaconal pastoral leadership of parishes has been varied. Some bishops began it, but a successor closed it down where it existed in in an early stage. Time is needed for a new process to take hold and there will be challenges to embrace along the way even as in parishes with resident priests.
The most extensive effort seems to have been Saginaw’s under Bishop Kenneth Untener.
“Basically, they took the diocesan Deaconate Training program and opened it up to both men and women. It consisted of two to three years of academic studies conducted on weekends once a month, followed by a practicum year in which the candidate committed to a specific ministerial program in the parish. After the completion of the program, and with the recommendation of their pastor, they would be commissioned by the Bishop as a Lay Minister for a three-year period. Their commission could be renewed every three years. After twelve years, they could request permanent Lay Ministry status. During their Lay Ministry, they were expected to participate in an annual retreat and to attend some on-going workshops. Most of the Lay Ministers served as volunteer ministers in their parishes; a few were employed in paid positions. A few of the lay ministers obtained Masters Degrees in Theology or Pastoral Ministry.”
Normal practice in many Third World parishes, especially in Africa and Latin America, is to have a larger parish, usually rural, with many “out-stations” (Uganda) or “chapels” (Guatemala) which are visited by the parish priest four, six or twelve times a year for Mass and sacraments. Weekly or bi-weekly services are conducted by a catechist or ideally by a trained lay preacher. Training in those parts of the world is much more difficult to accomplish. Leadership of the community may be vested in this individual or a different catechist. All such ministers are expected to take part in periodic formation weekends at deanery or diocesan level. The formational training must be provided by a person who him or herself is well prepared for this role. While on-the-ground realities in our part of the world are greatly different, this is an established model of the lay pastoral care that we in the First World can learn from.
For the reasons given above we offer this plea: that our bishops corporately, with the collaboration and assistance of those with experience in this area, formulate a plan now to meet this emerging crisis. Depending on circumstances, such a plan may be applied at once by some dioceses, more slowly by others, but a nationwide reality is unfolding which demands action by our whole Bishops’ Conference. Pope Francis has urged this very kind of action. Faith tells us that this crisis is also an opportunity. Hope tells us that whatever risk is involved belongs to our mission of bringing the Gospel to all people.
If USA Church leadership postpones dealing with this issue, the window of opportunity will slowly close. Then we will experience a greater collapse of parishes than we are currently experiencing, a loss of morale and health among priests, and further decline of the morale and trust of people who depend upon us to meet their spiritual needs. As our Catholic presence diminishes, so will our presence in society in all of its aspects.
Some dioceses may rush into a crash program of pastoral leadership. Others may declare that is God’s plan that we become a smaller remnant in order to give a stronger witness to a faithless world. It is difficult to view either response as what the Spirit is saying to the Churches, or as obedience to Christ’s command to “Go out and make disciples of all the nations.”

  • Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord A resource for guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry, A STATEMENT OF THE UNITED STATES CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS
  • Parish Life Coordinators by Hendricks, Loyola, 2009
  • Shaping Catholic Parishes by Gamin (ed.) Loyola
  • Pastoring Multiple Parishes, Moguilka and Wilkins, Loyola University Press.
  • The USCCB documents that address this concern, on website.
  • The Theological, Sacramental and Ecclesial Context of their Emerging Models Project, Most Rev. Blasé J. Cupich, National Ministry Summit, 2008.
  • Listening to the Spirit: Bishops and Parish Life Coordinators,Gautier, Bruce and Bendyna, CARA, 2007
  • The Changing Face of the Church, Jewell and Ramey, Loyola University Press, 2010.
  • The Next Generation of Pastoral Leaders, Hoge and Jewell, Loyola University Press, 2010.


  • Seek feedback regarding this draft proposal-cum-rationale by sharing it with all AUSCP members, enlist all members in approaching
    • Each of their individual bishops
    • Their deaneries and priests’ councils
  • AUSCP’s Moderator and individual bishops in such places as Bridgeport, Newark, Chicago, San Diego, Lexington, to invite feedback
  • the NFPC.
  • Revise proposal as suggested by feedback received.
  • Submit officially to USCCB officials.


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One Comment

  1. This situation, of course, might be averted, in part, by liberating presbyterial ordination to include married men.

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