Is the priest shortage a good reason to close parishes?

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A Detroit archdiocesan planning commission made up primarily of laypeople released a report today recommending that Detroit's bishop close nine parishes and consolidate 60 parishes into 21 over the next five years, according to the Detroit Free Press. Archbishop Allen Vigneron will now compare that report with recommendations from parishes as he weighs the next steps for the 1.4 million Catholics of the Detroit archdiocese.

As often is the case, the commission notes that the shortage of priests is the primary driver of parish closings, rather than the financial stability of any parish. One third of Detroit's 293 priests are expected to become inactive in the next decade. (Even the current number of priests yields a staggering ratio of 1 priest to every 4,700-plus Catholics.) The current uptick in seminary enrollment isn't going to make a dent in that number.

The priest shortage is a challenge for many reasons--see the ratio above--but it shouldn't be a primary reason for closing a parish, as if a parish's only purpose was the celebration of Sunday eucharist. A parish is an organization of the baptized for the sake of their ministry to the world; a parish is more than Sunday Mass. While it is desirable that every parish have a resident priest, it isn't necessary, and there are many possible solutions to the problem of a parish without a priest.

The decision to close a parish is a serious one, and it should be based on the viability of the community gathered: Can it preach the gospel, carry out the works of mercy, and gather for liturgy, as well as support itself? If the answer is yes, then some creative solution must be sought to keep it open, even if that means someone other than a priest leads its pastoral life. The shortage of priests is another ball of wax entirely.