A growing number of Catholic priests are taking up the role once identified with frontier Methodist preachers as they “circuit-ride” to locations without clerical leadership, according to USA Today (April 14).
The number of active priests has declined from 35,070 in 1965 to just an estimated 21,030 in the year 2005, according to a study sponsored by the U.S.Catholic Conference. The crisis stems from the rapidly increasing number of new Catholics, due to a high birth rate and immigration. As of now there are some 6l million Catholics in 19,677 parishes, up from 4l million in 17,637 parishes in 1965. In that year there was one priest for every 775 Catholics; by 2005, according to present trends, that figure will be up to 2,193.
Without having women as ordained priests, Catholic leaders are turning more to priests traveling by car to needy parishes, and to relying more on laypeople for parish ministry. The statistics tell the story: circuit-riding priests in 1997 covered 2,393 parishes,, up from 549 in l965, and l,051 in 1985.
Priests are spending their days riding up to 36,000 miles a year, spending their nights in empty rectories and serving as little as once a month in isolated parishes. The circuit-riders are most common in small towns. A growing number of city parishes where ethnic groups hold on to their traditions are hiring the itinerant priests.
In one city, for instance the church has assigned one priest to three city churches — one Polish, one Italian, and one French, all located only a few blocks from one another. Researchers studying this change have found dozens of priests expressing increasingly higher levels of exhaustion and job dissatisfaction. Some of those interviewed by the newspaper, however, tell of how they enjoy their new roles.
— Erling Jorstad