Save Our Parish Community
Do Not Stifle the Spirit

Do Not Stifle the Spirit!

 (Thess 5:19)
A Call to Preserve Vibrant Parishes in a Time of Fewer Priests

Keeping viable, gospel-witnessing, parish communities together should be a primary consideration in diocesan decisions about closing or merging parishes in a time of fewer priests. U.S. Church leaders must develop “best practices” policies for preserving and enhancing vibrant parishes, especially as more lay ministers, deacons and lay leaders respond to a call from God to serve the Roman Catholic Church.

Jesus told his disciples, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”(Mt. 18:20). From the beginning, Christians gathered together into communities to support each other in living and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Parish communities are the lifeblood of the Catholic Church and anything that damages their well-being significantly impedes the mission of the Church.

But recently some dioceses have closed or merged viable and vital parish communities even though they had active lay leadership and important outreach ministries.

Parishes Have a Right to Exist

Yet, Church law tells us that the most fundamental right of a parish is the right to existence (c. 374.1). Once a community of faith is formed and recognized, it becomes perpetual unless it is legitimately suppressed or stops all activity for 100 years (c120.1). To be suppressed, the impossibility of continued life must be clearly demonstrated.

Because of the priest shortage, U.S. dioceses will be forced to reconfigure parishes well into the foreseeable future. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 75% of the 18,000 active diocesan priests in the U.S. are over 55 years old, but we are only ordaining about 350 new diocesan priests each year. In 20 years, presuming ordinations remain constant, we could have as few as 11,500 active diocesan priests for our 19,000 parishes. At the same time, numbers of deacons and paid lay ministers have increased significantly to 14,000 and 30,000 respectively.

Alternatives to Closing Parishes

In the past 20 years, bishops in Albany, Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Rochester, Saginaw and Seattle issued pastoral documents aimed at preserving viable parish communities. They chose creative solutions such as entrusting the pastoral care of several parishes to one priest, to a team of priests, or to competent lay ecclesial ministers, deacons and religious. Currently, such “parish life coordinators” are pasturing an estimated 600 U.S. parishes.

Thessalonians 5:19-22 tells us: “Do not stifle the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies.Test everything; retain what is good.”  Our God is a God of abundance.  We are blessed with an abundance of lay ecclesial ministers and deacons.  They constitute a rich and faithful resource for Bishops choosing to preserve vibrant, active parishes rather than close them simply because there is no priest available.  

We the undersigned, support creative and constructive conversation with our priests, parishioners, pastoral ministers and all ecclesial leaders about how to keep our parishes vibrant and fruitful in a time of fewer priests. We also support the following “best practices” for preserving vibrant parishes in a time of fewer priests. *

  • Parishes that are financially viable, have active lay leadership and apostolic outreach should not be closed or merged solely because there is no priest available.
  • Before closing or merging vital parishes in areas where no priests are available, bishops should use all the latitude canon law provides for empowering lay ecclesial ministers and/or deacons to administer and lead parishes. (Canons 516.2 and 517.2)
  • Parishioners and lay leaders should be informed about, consulted and involved in all decisions about the future of their parish. In collaboration with priests and/or parish life coordinators; lay leaders on parish councils, parish finance committees and other parish committees or commissions should be empowered to take ownership for the financial stability and gospel witness of their parish community.
  • Abundant financial assets and/or the high commercial value of parish real estate should never be the decisive reasons for closing or merging a parish.
  • Good stewardship of resources, non-duplication of services and collaborating with neighboring communities are important values in discerning whether to close or merge a parish.
  • Parish size and demographics should not be the only determinant for closing or merging. Ethnic diversity and outreach to marginalized groups should weigh equally to size, presuming leadership, vitality and financial viability are also present.
  • Our bishops should encourage vocation awareness for diaconate and lay ministerial ecclesial calls as well as calls to the celibate priesthood and religious life.
  • Dioceses should subsidize theological and pastoral education for lay ministers at the same level as diaconate education.

Organizing Sponsor

FutureChurch

Organizational endorsers

Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church

Call To Action

Voice of the Faithful

Elephants in the Living Room (a Detroit group of priests and laity committed to preserving urban parishes)

United Parishes (A Toledo group formed in the wake of parish closings in that diocese)

Individual endorsers**

William A. Clark SJ, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Holy Cross College, Worcester, MA. And author of A Voice of Their Own: The Authority of the Local Parish and

Jon Nilson, Department of Theology, Loyola University Chicago, and former president of Catholic Theological Society of America. Author of Hearing Past the Pain. Towards African-American/White Catholic Theological Engagement. (Paulist, 2007),

Ruth Wallace, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, George Washington University. Author of They Call Her Pastor: A New Role for Catholic Women and They Call Him Pastor: Married Men in Charge of Parishes.

Paul Wilkes, Author of Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices and The Seven Secrets of Successful Catholics.

* As of 9/12/2006
** Organizations listed for identification purposes only

Please Endorse the Do Not Stifle the Spirit! Statement Online

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Your name will be included in the ad as an endorser of the statement (If need be, give yourself a pseudonym such as “Overworked Pastor,” “Midwest Lay Minister,” etc). First printing deadline, December 1, 2006. After December 1 we will continue to accumulate signatures and donations for a second printing but we cannot guarantee publication.

1. James A. Coriden. The Parish in the Catholic Tradition. (New York: Paulist Press, 1997) 73.