The Graying of the Priesthood--And the "Do-It-Yourself Church"

NCR reports a new book from CARA researchers looking at the demographics of the priesthood. The median age of priests has increased 31% since 1970, while that of doctors and lawyers has increased only 3-5% in the same time. More than 40% of priests in the US are over the age of 65. Then there's this:

--Men being ordained today define themselves more as a man set apart than previous generations, such as the men born between 1943 and 1960 (called Vatican II priests), who were encouraged in their vocation by family members and communities who looked up to the priest as a servant-leader who is active in promoting social justice;--Men ordained in the last 20 or 30 years are significantly less likely to embrace a need to consult with the laity or lay employees about parish matters than men born between 1943 and 1960

By happenstance, I read this back-to-back with Tom Reese's call for a "Do-It-Yourself Church," in which we "no longer wait for Father or Sister to do it anymore." Then he calls out the laity for our responsibility for the problem:

Clericalism is two sides of the same coin. There is authoritarianism on one side. The other is laity wanting [clerics] to do everything for them.

OK then: we have a shrinking clerical caste who increasingly define themselves apart from the People of God (a.k.a. "the Church," according to Vatican II,) and feel little need to work collaboratively with them. We have a passive laity who wait for "authorized" leadership, AND we have people leaving the Church in droves. We also have an increasing cadre of well-trained, passionate, devoted lay ministers who are caught in the middle. (If you look at the numbers, as the number of priests is declining, the number of lay ministers is increasing--their numbers are coming close to being equal to the number of priests--and they're younger.) Lay ministers working in parishes have neither the job security nor the canonical protections of priests--you don't have to work with them long to begin to hear horror stories of rejection, unjust firing, disdain, and general bad management from their priest-bosses (who don't feel they need to consult with them, after all. If they're uppity, just fire them and find someone less qualified and more malleable.) So--support your local lay minister! And work with them in this "Do-It-Yourself Church," inside or outside parish ministry. Heck, perhaps especially outside, where the "post-churched" are--think schools, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes, soup kitchens and shelters, the military. Like Jesus' first followers, we need to go out to the world rather than waiting for people to wander into the church. After all, lay ministers are TRAINED to be collaborative ministers, TRAINED in servant-leadership, and on fire with the love of Christ.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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