NEW YORK (CNS) — People long for a spiritual home and Catholics expect to find it at their parish, with a pastor who provides a rich diet of spiritual food and “meets people where they are,” Franciscan Sister Katarina Schuth told a New York audience June 7.

Catholics want their parish to be an inviting place, she said. Priests can preach about sin, but they don’t have to focus on it.


Sister Schuth, a professor of social scientific study of religion at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., delivered the 15th annual Philip J. Murnion Lecture, “Shaping Parish Life: Ongoing Influences of Vatican II and the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.”

The event was held at the headquarters of the American Bible Society.

Msgr. Murnion, who was ordained in 1963 and died in 2003, was the founding director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. The center pioneered programs to help diocesan and parish workers implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council in their ministries and became the home of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

Using the outline of Msgr. Murnion’s priestly career, Sister Schuth traced the development of parish life from 1963 to the present. One of the biggest changes is in personnel, she said. In 1963, there were more than 56,000 priests serving 44 million Catholics in 17,000 parishes. Counting religious men and women, there were 179 Catholics per priest and religious in 1963.

With a drop in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and an increase in the number of Catholics and parishes, there are now 687 Catholics per priest and religious. There are now approximately 68 million Catholics in 18,000 parishes. Nationwide, there are fewer than 40,000 diocesan and religious order priests.

The lower numbers of men and women religious have had the greatest impact in education, she said, where lay employees have stepped in to fill the gap.

In addition, the growth in the number of international priests “has changed the face of the Catholic church in dramatic ways,” Sister Schuth said. Foreign-born priests now comprise one-quarter of active priests and one-third of seminarians. It is difficult for some parishes to adjust to this, she said.

Fifty years ago, parishes were led by well-seasoned pastors who likely served 25 years as an assistant before being named a pastor. There was no actual mentoring program and newly ordained priests learned by watching and doing. “Deacon” referred to a young man awaiting priestly ordination.

Now, many priests become pastors before they reach the fifth anniversary of ordination. And they serve beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 years. Two-thirds of dioceses in the United States have fewer active priests than parishes and associate pastors are increasingly rare, “except for the largest parishes in the most ‘priest-rich dioceses,'” Sister Schuth said.

With clustering and merging of parishes, she said, “about a third of all pastors are serving several parishes.”

The church has survived because of the ascendancy of paid and volunteer lay ministers and ordained deacons, she said. Paid lay ministers were uncounted until the 1970s, but now number more than 40,000, Sister Schuth said. There are nearly 18,000 permanent deacons.

Msgr. Murnion’s efforts to envision and support vibrant parishes relied on a deep understanding of the Incarnation and a commitment to dialogue, partnership and collaboration among all levels of the church, Sister Schuth said.

“He was always conscious of the wide variety of parish structures and practices with their prevailing ecclesiologies. He described those with centralized authority and devotional piety on one side and egalitarian style with a social dimension and broad participation on the other. Yet he was attentive to the needs of all and looked for that which united, rather than that which divided,” she said.

The parish is a pastoral entity at the center of the continuum, “accountable to official teaching and norms but accommodating to local cultures and individual needs,” she said.

Excellent parishes consult and engage the people, develop mission statements, use pastoral planning, analyze the needs of parishioners, organize activities and “communicate, interact, relate and dialogue across many parish entities and the universal church,” she said.

People no longer feel an obligation to attend a territorial church and will travel outside their neighborhood to find a parish that meets their needs, she said.

Kevin Ahern, a doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College, responded to Sister Schuth’s lecture. He said the global reality of the local church is a blessing and a challenge. Newcomers bring richness and vitality, and challenge racism and prejudice, he said.

Parishes must find strategies to make the transition to multiculturalism, he said.

Ahern said the de-territorialization of the parish will either bring people together or create ecclesial enclaves some call “boutique parishes.” Parish leaders are challenged to bring parishioners together intentionally, while respecting their needs for different styles of worship and service, he said.