The first significant factor that is being taken into account is the number of priests that we will have actively ministering in the Archdiocese by the year 2020. Fr. Steve Avella, a priest of the Archdiocese, recently published the second volume in his history of the diocese. This second volume covered the span of the years 1958 – 1977, the days that Archbishop Cousins served as our Archbishop. In the book he points out that the peak numbers of priests in the Archdiocese happened during this era, specifically in 1966. In 1966 the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had 698 diocesan priests. By 2020, the number of diocesan priests in active ministry in the Archdiocese will be down to 134. An 80% decline in a little over 50 years. As you can see, this has been a significant change. To put the change in even further perspective, when I was ordained ten years ago in 2005, we had three members of our ordination class. Fifty years prior to that, in 1955, the Archdiocese ordained thirty new priests (in one year!). In the decade from 1950 – 1959, the Archdiocese ordained 196 new priests. In the decade of 2000 – 2009, the Archdiocese ordained a total of 30 men, only 15% of the total it had ordained fifty years earlier. This decrease in the number of priests and its impact on the Archdiocese and on parishes cannot be underestimated. For the near future, this trend will continue with only an estimated 134 priests in active ministry by the year 2020, with nearly 200 parishes to serve and not including the countless other ministries which priests have been involved with in the past.
The second significant factor that is driving the planning process is based on the shifting demographics of the Archdiocese. Over the course of the next few decades the Catholic population in Southeastern Wisconsin will continue to grow, however, it is estimated that there will be a sharp decrease in the numbers of those Catholics who are registered and active members of their parishes. Right now, on parish registration lists there are about 450,000 Catholics, it is projected by the year 2040 that there will be only 200,000 on our parish registration lists while the numbers of Catholics whose tie to the Church is tenuous will grow to 700,000. This, along with some shifting in the geographical locations of Catholics, means that we have to be pro-active in in discerning where our resources need to be placed.
As you can tell, these numbers show the prudence of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in embarking on a planning process for the near future. They are numbers that cannot be ignored and must be taken into account. At the same time, we have to avoid the temptation to become discouraged or fatalistic, we have a role to play in helping to reverse the trend that we see unfolding. We too are called to invite and pray for those (particularly of our own families and friends) who have ceased practicing their faith and, secondly, we are called to pray for and promote vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. We are called to seek to draw closer to Christ through the sacraments and prayer so that our hearts may be continually converted – if we are close to Christ, other people will see that and want it and will be drawn to joining us and our prayers for the Church and for the Archdiocese will be more effective the holier our lives are and the closer we are to the Lord Himself. Finally, we must beg the Lord in prayer to reverse these trends and to give us strength and hope.
In the next article, I am going to examine more closely the Archdiocesan 2020 Plan and what it will entail.