As vocations decline, plans for new ministry structure arise


The approaching anniversary of Christ’s birth 2,000 years ago offers Catholics a unique opportunity to reflect on the future of the faith.

In the Diocese of Charleston, with the guidance of the recently completed Synod, reflection is turning to action, as leaders work to develop new models of ministry that will better serve both the rapidly growing number of Catholics in South Carolina and the comparatively smaller number of priests that are challenged to minister to them.

Jay LeVan, director of Planning and Synod Implementation, has put that future into figures, in charts and graphs mapping trends reaching back to the 1960s and running through 2022, providing a clear, if foreboding, picture of the status of South Carolina’s Catholic population and its priesthood. The increase in the number of priests required to tend to the growing Catholic congregation over the next two decades virtually mirrors the downward trend in vocations, leaving the diocese, in 25 years, with half the priests it needs to lead its parishes in the traditional one priest-one parish model.

“We have been very effective over the years establishing in the minds of everyone the canonical model of a resident pastor serving as the spiritual leader and administrative manager of a single parish … To serve the greater need, to care for our people, we must be more open to other ways to provide for competent, pastoral leadership,” said Msgr. Sam R. Miglarese, vicar general.

The Office of the Vicar for Clergy has developed four models for pastoral ministry: the traditional one parish-one priest; the pastoral administrator with a sacramental priest; the pastoral administrator serving a new, developing community; and the ethnic or national faith community with a sacramental priest. “Each one has its own particular challenges,” said Msgr. James A. Carter, vicar for clergy.

The figure of 3 percent growth in Catholic population that LeVan used in his analysis was established in 1993 and is probably closer to 5 to 7 percent now, he said. While the coastal areas were once considered the domain of Catholics in the state, the growth is no longer fixated in any one particular area, he said. New housing developments along the coast and new businesses in the midlands and upstate are bringing in more Catholics from the North, in addition to growing numbers coming the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

The diocese also ranks sixth in the nation in the ratio of newly ordained priests to Catholic population, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Council of Diocesan Vocations Directors. But, priestly vocations are still not keeping pace with the growing number of Catholics. “We should all continue to pray for priestly vocations, but there is not a lot of room to improve … we are already doing well,” LeVan said. “We would need 15 to 16 priests ordained per five year period just to maintain the same number of active priests and this would not address the population growth issue.”

During the next 10 to 15 years the impact may hit harder than people think, LeVan added, as priests with 50 years of pastoral service retire. Young priests, those ordained less than five years, will be challenged to fill their shoes much earlier than they might have expected several years ago when they would have spent a number of years in preparation as an associate pastor.

The dual problem of a growing Catholic population and a declining number of priests is further compounded in South Carolina by geography. “We have 31,000 square miles. We are the only diocese in the Southeast still contiguous with the state boundaries,” Msgr. Miglarese said. A number of priests with mission churches currently travel many miles each weekend to provide the Eucharist. Msgr. Carter said some Sundays have found pastoral administrators scrambling to find a priest to travel to their parish. Add to that the difficulty of maintaining a sense of community at a church where essentially people gather together only once a week for Mass.

“We need to find a way to bridge the practical concerns arising from growth, distance and time to provide a model of pastoral care and sacramental life for our people that is not burdensome for the priest providing it or the people receiving it,” Msgr. Miglarese said.

From his analysis, LeVan sees the need for a “new service model,” one which allows priests to focus on those things which only they can do for the faithful, and leaving other responsibilities to lay people under the priest’s guidance. The Institute for Parish Leadership Development will work with priests, deacons and diocesan leadership in determining what the priests will do and what the laity and deacons can do with them, he said.

The new models for pastoral ministry that have been developed work to do just that, calling upon women and men religious, lay leaders and deacons, all institute-trained, to take on responsibilities at parishes; and calling upon priests to come together in large communities of parishes to share resources. Msgr. Carter said the diocese is working to formalize these and other types of leadership models for faith communities. A draft document outlining them will be discussed at the November deanery meetings and again at a special priest convocation to be held this January.

The traditional model, in place since the 1950s, is familiar to all Catholics: one church (or one church with a mission/missions) and a priest.

The pastoral administrator serving with a sacramental priest is becoming more familiar in the diocese. There have been 14 installations of pastoral administrators, all women and men religious and deacons.

“Where we haven’t had priests, pastoral administrators have risen to the fore,” Msgr. Carter said. “By and large they are limited in their celebration of the sacraments. However, they can prepare people for reception of the sacraments and they may have Communion services outside of Mass.” And they can provide a sense of a community to a parish without a resident priest. Msgr. Carter pointed to the work of a team of Christian Brothers appointed in February as administrators to St. John’s Church in North Charleston. “That community is thriving … the people have really rallied around them.”

The model of sacramental priests serving an ethnic faith community is similar to the national churches that exist in other areas of the country, Msgr. Carter said. This model is being employed in the diocese in ministry to Hispanic Catholics. Large Hispanic communities are located across the state and priests have been assigned to serve the community at large, rather than at any one particular parish.

The national faith community is a relatively new model in the diocese, as is the concept of assigning a pastoral administrator to a forming Catholic community, a model just recently employed in the new Catholic Community Northeast of Columbia. Sister Clare Reinert, SSND, has been assigned as pastoral administrator to the area where there is estimated to be anywhere from 1,800 to 4,000 Catholics. Sister Clare’s job is to work in the community, assess the needs and decide what would best serve the Catholics.

Another option is that of the mega church. Arising from the Synod and from the need to share resources is this concept of satellite faith communities being served sacramentally by priests from a central church. Compatibility among priests and liturgical styles existing in churches of the same cluster presents a special challenge to this model, Msgr. Carter said. The largest hurdle, though, may be in the acceptance of those in the communities, and their willingness to travel to the central church if the Sunday Eucharist is not available at their church.

And it is acceptance, coupled with financing, that is the greatest challenge to all the new leadership models. While much has been studied about who will lead, questions still remain about those who follow and their acceptance of both changes in the familiar traditional parish model and the greater capacity in which they will be asked to serve in the Church of the next millennium. Msgr. Miglarese recalled his own experience as a child in a small parish in Hampton whose pastor was always associated with a nearby parish. “Those priests provided the center of unity, but I know that it is the faith life and the people of the parish that has kept it sustained.”