Given current trends, somewhere between 2020 and 2025 the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will have more parishes than it has available priests.

That’s a statistic Archdiocesan Research and Planning director Dr. Robert Miller shared at a Nov. 6 meeting of the Serra Club of Philadelphia meeting at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Philadelphia.

That fact in itself goes a long way toward explaining why there will be parish consolidations as part of the ongoing Archdiocesan Strategic Planning process.

Of course there are other factors, including lower Mass attendance, Catholic population shifts, especially away from the city and older suburbs to new suburbs, and financial deficits in parishes that the Archdiocese can no longer afford to fund.

“If we have parishes that don’t absolutely need to be there and we can merge those parishes with another parish, it relieves a priest to be available to parishes that need to be there,” Miller said.

“It’s not money; it’s mission that leads it and usually its demographics.”

“The important thing always is the people of God working together to do what God wants us to do. Whether we do it in this building over here or that building over there doesn’t matter a whole lot.”

Although every parish in the Archdiocese will ultimately undergo scrutiny through their Pastoral Planning Area (PPA) at this time there are seven PPAs with 59 parishes under study. Although a few cases may be decided as early as January 2013, in most cases it will probably be around March.

One of the big differences between the planning that was going on in the 1990s and 2000’s is that “now there is much more direction from the Archdiocese on what needs to be addressed and how in some cases it will be addressed,” Miller said.

The direction can be rather specific, he explained, particularly when considering parishes that have marginal use of the sacramental life of the Church, for example very few baptisms, funerals and marriages.

“That is going to get the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee’s attention, to say, is this parish really having the full experience of parish or might it be better served by joining up with another parish?

The process itself is relatively complex. It involves meetings of the pastors and their dean with Strategic Planning Committee representatives, meetings including the above and parish lay representatives and meetings with parishioners as a whole and the regional bishop. Final plans are forwarded to the Archbishop, who after consultation with his presbyteral council will make a final decision.

“One thing we ask the parishes to do is consider conceptually planning for the future of the Church in their area,” Miller said. “Pastors and parishioners tend to define that as their parish, so they spend a lot of time defending why their parish should stay open and that is certainly a very normal and human response.

“But that’s not what we are encouraging them to do because we are called to build the Church of the future. The parishes of the future will be really there to serve our grandchildren. With the clerical staff available we have to plan what will make sense in 2050.”

Miller put out some statistics, for example as an archdiocesan parish average — although no parish is average in everything — Sunday Mass attendance is 988, average annual baptisms are 49, average annual marriages is 13, average annual funerals are 42, and average number of contributing envelopes are 668.

“If you are doing less than this you know you are doing less than the Archdiocese. And you know even if you don’t have a target on your back it is something to be considered. There may be a reason why you will never be average, and that’s fine but it does pose the question.”

Change in structure should not be the important thing, Miller said.

“The important thing always is the people of God working together to do what God wants us to do. Whether we do it in this building over here or that building over there doesn’t matter a whole lot.”