Editor’s note: “Matters of faith” is a column that provides local religious leaders a place to write about how their respective faiths provide hope, courage and strength in these modern times.
Last week I went to a party celebrating the 20th anniversary of the priestly ordination of Fr. David Bittmenn. He has been the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Orem for eight years. His parish built a new church building about a year ago, which is in the Spanish mission style.
Fr. Dave grew up in Tooele, was a THS Buffalo, and got his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah. His parents still live here and are parishioners. Fr. Dave is rare type of priest nowadays, because he is a local. St. Marguerite has been blessed in that there have been five priestly vocations from our parish, which, unfortunately, is uncommon.
Fr. Dave officially started his journey following his vocation at least 26 years ago and that was the last priestly vocation out of St. Marguerite. I grew up at Holy Family Parish in Ogden. When I was in seminary, there were two other men my same age in seminary. We were all the same age and belonged to the same youth group when we were in high school.
One joined the Franciscans of Steubenville, Ohio for a while, but discerned it wasn’t for him. The other studied at the North American College in Rome where he completed his studies for the priesthood; however, he decided not to get ordained at the last minute. He later got married and received his doctorate in education. Holy Family has one other vocation and that is a woman who is a religious sister and the older sister of a friend of mine.
The Catholic Church in the U.S. (including Western Europe) is in a pickle, since we do not have vocations to the priesthood and the number is declining. The average age of your typical Catholic priest is in the middle 60s. What we have been doing is robbing other places of their priests, where the layperson to priest ratio is much greater. Yes, these dioceses may have many more priests than ours; however, they have far more Catholics.
Because of the Church’s affluence (relative to the rest of the world), we pay foreign priests, and foreign dioceses to lend us their priests, so that we can have our parishes staffed with at least one resident priest. Over half of the priests serving in Utah are from other countries. We have priests from El Salvador, Columbia, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Tanzania, Nigeria, Brazil, and India. The majority of our new priests are either from Mexico and El Salvador.
There is only one place in the world that has too many priests, meaning the Bishop has not enough assignments for those who are being ordained. That place is in India. The rest of the world is either experiencing a shortage or may just have enough. Speaking of ratios, the U.S. is in relatively good standing with one priest for 1,500 Catholics. In Brazil, it is one priest for 20,000 Catholics. Other countries that are mostly Catholic resemble Brazil.
Many reasons have been given for why this is the case. From my experience, the greatest reason is that even though many people claim to be Catholic, few really practice their faith in a meaningful way. Catholic priests come from strong Catholic families involved in strong Catholic parishes. Most priests have had priests in their life that made the vocation of the priesthood look desirable.
I have talked with my priest friends and their families resemble mine. Many of their brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins, etc., no longer practice their faith. Our families resemble other Catholic families in the U.S. in that many either have left the Church, rarely come, or may have joined a non-denominational Christian church.
In order to even make it possible for a young man to consider a vocation, he must get to know a real priest who makes the vocation look meaningful and (dare I say) fun, and must have family members who model a Christian lifestyle and take him to the Church at least every Sunday. Most parents of priests were devoted Catholics, but there seems to have been a major change in Catholic culture where en masse everyone forgot how to be Catholic.
One fateful Sunday morning in the 70s one said to another, let’s not go to church. For weeks following they either stayed in bed or did something important like their laundry. Their grandkids don’t know what the inside of a church looks like, except from movies.
I listen to parishioners from other parishes complain about not being able to understand their priest’s accent (my parishioners complain because they understand what I say), but what many fail to understand is that this is the only option if they want mass at their parish. I feel that it is unjust for us to bring priests from dioceses that have greater pastoral needs. If we fail to provide priests from our families, we should feel the pinch, not the Catholic community in Africa, South America, Asia or Latin America.
This crisis was supposed to occur in the 80s due to projections related to age of retirement and death. Elderly priests who knew there was no one to replace them just continued to be pastors into their 70s and 80s due to their good health, generosity, and love for their people.
So instead of a retirement of golf and saying masses on cruise ships, many priests leave their parishes to enter directly into assisted living care facilities, because they have nothing more to give. They are spent.
So what can be done? With the popularity of Pope Francis, more men are expressing interest in entering seminary to discern whether they are being called to full-time ministry in the Church as a priest. This is hopeful. Frequently people say why not let priests get married. This would make being a priest more attractive to some, but it would definitely impact parishes and the priest’s ministry in varied ways.
Who knows? I am sure there are many reasons why there is an extremely high divorce rate for clergy, so nothing is a panacea. We’ll see. I am sure there are many practical ways to optimize the ministry of each priest, such as closing small parishes, making bigger ones, empowering lay people to do tasks that don’t require anointed hands, yet this is fundamentally a spiritual problem, not a logistical one.
Pope Francis and the Bishops are scratching their heads, as they and all of us who make up the Church, wonder how to keep the Catholic Church viable, when 30 percent of youth have no experience of being in a faith community and so many spiritual people have an allergic reaction to organized religion. These are interesting times to quote the gypsy curse.
Rev. Dinsdale is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.