With priest numbers dwindling, Cincinnati archdiocese readies to reorganize parishes

Churches will be grouped in “families,” with draft plan set to be released soon

With fewer Catholics and fewer priests, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is preparing to unite parishes in groups called “families” — a reorganization that could orient some Southwestern Ohio churches toward diminished use or eventual closure, although no closures are imminent.

Called “Beacons of Light,” a draft of the reorganization is set to be unveiled Oct. 1, with a plan finalization slated for this winter.

The implications are significant for the religious life of about 160,000 registered Catholic households in Southwestern Ohio, with the plan touching, or potentially touching, parish operations, Mass schedules, employment, the education of children and more.

A “family” of parishes is a group of several parishes led by one pastor. Details about which parishes will be proposed to be linked together are not public, but Archbishop Dennis Schnurr — in a nearly 20-minute video interview on the archdiocese’s “Beacons of Light” web site — said “families” could be comprised of up to six or seven parishes.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

“Not all, but some, depending on the size of the parish and the distance between parishes,” Schnurr said. “All those factors will be taken into account.”

‘Not sustainable any longer’

Presented with questions for this story, a representative of the archdiocese referred to the Beacons of Light web site (https://catholicaoc.org/beacons-of-light), saying more details will be offered in coming days.

But the way parishes function today “is not sustainable,” Schnurr said in his video interview.

Previous attempts have been made to identify and highlight the problem, but with no follow-through, he said.

“This one, there has to be follow-through.”

The model of one pastor serving one parish is already outdated. Today, pastors sometimes serve two or more parishes. Rev. Satish Joseph, for example, acts as pastor for the parishes of Immaculate Conception and St. Mary in Dayton and St. Helen in Riverside. (Joseph declined comment for this story).

Archdiocese leaders have been working on the plan draft for about a year, driven by several hard numbers. There are about 442,000 Catholics in the 19-county Cincinnati archdiocese today, down from the 529,000 Catholics the archdiocese counted in 1970.

While that’s only a 16% drop, it’s the number of priests that can be seen as the chief challenge. A far smaller number of priests are at work.

In 1970, the archdiocese counted 417 active diocesan priests, approaching 450 available priests total, serving about 259 parishes at the time.

While there are different ways of counting priests, an archdiocesan report points to about 160 active priests today (in his interview, Schnurr put the number at 150) serving about 208 parishes — a reduction in the number of priests of some 61%, compared to 51 years ago.

Another daunting data point: Twenty of 114 (17.5%) pastors are eligible for retirement or face “mandatory” retirement, according to the archdiocese’s “current realities” report, found on the Beacons of Light web site.

“The thing is, we just don’t have enough priests to service all the parishes,” said Rev. John Civille, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Middletown. “And it’s ... going to be that way for some time to come. So they’re going to have to basically merge some of these parishes.”

“The archbishop thinks it will pick up again, but we’ll just wait and see about that,” he added. “But it’s hard to know just how to do that. As far as we’re concerned, I don’t know what will happen.”

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The welfare of priests is at stake, Schnurr said.

“These priests have been asked to do more and more,” he said in the video. “If this continues, it is already impacting the health and well-being of our priests, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically.”

‘Disposition of all parish assets’

The archdiocese’s “frequently asked questions” list addresses the possibility of closed churches with this response:

“The expectation is that, over time, a family of parishes will become one canonical parish. With that expectation in mind, it is important to remember that a parish can be made up of a single church or multiple churches.”

Asked if parishes will close, Schnurr said in the video: “Beacons of Light is not focusing on closing parishes at all.”

However, he added: “Over time, some family of parishes may come to the conclusion that we really don’t need all these campuses. We can accomplish this with fewer campuses — and then there may be the decision to reduce a parish church to the status of an oratory or a chapel.”

That decision will be made by local parishes, not the archdiocese, he said.

A family will have one pastor, with parochial vicars or associate pastors assisting him, Schnurr also said.

Even as new priests are ordained, older priests retire or leave active ministry. Schnurr said priests have been asked to become pastors or associate pastors — essentially, administrators, educators and sometimes spiritual leaders to thousands of families — earlier in their careers.

Sometimes, experienced priests can mentor younger priests. But even that is becoming difficult, the archbishop said.

“That’s no longer possible today,” he said. “While we’re ordaining more, the older priests are retiring still at a faster rate.”

Sandra Yocum, a University of Dayton professor of faith and culture, said she doesn’t want to jump to conclusions. But she believes the archdiocese is trying to respond “to the reality of the situation.” She feels archdiocesan leaders are making an effort to be “transparent” about their work, as well.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

“I think my feeling is one of wait-and-see and see how things develop,” Yokum said.

She added: “It is going to be a huge challenge.”

‘The movement of people’

This is more than a story of dwindling numbers.

There are 1,437 fewer parishes in the United States today than there were in 1971 (down to a total of 16,346), according to data from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s “1964” blog in 2019.

But numbers aren’t shrinking everywhere. There are states and areas where the Catholic population is seeing dramatic growth.

The Rev. Tom Gaunt, executive director of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), believes it’s a matter of population movement.

“Folks have moved from urban areas to suburban, but also from the Northeast, Midwest, to the South and West of the country,” he said in an interview. “So you’ll see that Cincinnati shows a decline in the number of Catholics year after year for the past couple of decades. But at the same time, we see this explosive growth in places like Atlanta or Houston.”

Mark Gray, a researcher for CARA, wrote in 2019 about what he called a “tale of two churches,” in which “pastors in different parts of the country tend to be worried about different things (keeping the lights on vs. finding space for more pews and parking spaces.)”

Gray found that Ohio lost 171 Catholic parishes from 1971 to 2019.

Growth of Catholics has concentrated in the South and West. CARA found, for example, that Texas added 293 parishes from 1971 to 2019, Florida added 165 parishes in that period, and Arizona and New Mexico added 121.