In 2005, two parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, St. James in Mequon and St. Cecilia in Thiensville, merged to become one combined parish named Lumen Christi. The rationale for the merger was a familiar one: the archdiocese’s worsening priest shortage. I joined the pastoral staff of Lumen Christi in 2013, when the then-merged parish was evaluating whether they should combine into one geographic site, using the St. James church building rather than both locations. When the parish held a listening session to discuss the issue, a debate quickly broke out about how to furnish the combined site. People from St. James insisted that they could not bear to lose their crucifix. Someone else suggested that they could utilize the tabernacle from the St. Cecilia site, since it seemed the crucifix had to stay. People continued to chime in with opinions about how to best combine pieces of both spaces.
An older gentleman raised his hand and stood up. He looked around the room and said, “My grandfather was baptized at St. Cecilia. I was baptized at St. Cecilia. My son and granddaughter were both baptized at St. Cecilia. I am sorry about your decorating dilemma, but I want you all to know that I am not too excited about leaving my home parish to go worship at yours.”
Nine years later, Lumen Christi has combined into one site in a way that honors both former parishes, and their process is an example of how to manage mergers thoughtfully. But the man’s comments have stuck with me, and I continue to be sad for his loss. It seemed to me that parish mergers and closures ripped apart communities and brought a lot of unnecessary pain. I wondered why the preferred method of dealing with the priest shortage, in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and elsewhere, has been to merge parishes, when an alternative exists.
This alternative is Canon 517.2, which allows lay or deacon leaders to serve as the administrators and spiritual leaders of their parishes. The canon states:
If, because of a lack of priests, the diocesan bishop has decided that participation in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish is to be entrusted to a deacon, to another person who is not a priest, or to a community of persons, he is to appoint some priest who, provided with the powers and faculties of a pastor, is to direct the pastoral care.
Rather than requiring a single priest to be the head of the parish, and closing a parish when one isn’t available, the model allows other qualified members of the faithful to lead the parish day-to-day. This model does not have a universal name; the leadership role it involves is most commonly referred to as “parish-life coordinators,” but they also go by “parish administrators” or “ministers of Canon 517.2” (which rolls off the tongue). In Milwaukee, these ministers are known as parish directors.
According to data from CARA, since the 1960s, the number of active priests in the United States has dropped by 38 percent. Today there are six times more parishes without resident priests. In Milwaukee the numbers are even more dire: a drop in the number of priests by about 73 percent since the 1970s. Seventy percent of priests here are sixty years old or older. Milwaukee has used the Canon 517.2 model increasingly since the 1980s, but still not very often; parish administrators make up only 7 percent of the total parish leadership in the archdiocese. At the same time, as a result of mergers and closures, the number of parishes has decreased from 265 to 197.