From TribLive in Pittsburgh, a look at some of the challenges facing priests and deacons in Pennsylvania:
Paul Sullins, a sociology professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, cautions against overreacting to what he calls an artificial crisis “manufactured by those who say we need to make these radical changes in order to solve the problem,” referring to proposed changes such as expanding priesthood eligibility to married men and — more controversially — to women.
“The idea that there are a lot of Catholics who will be looking for priests or Mass and not being able to find them is not likely to be true,” Sullins said.
National surveys have flagged a slight dip in numbers of American Catholics in recent years, but long-term studies show the denomination has grown modestly in most years since the 1960s. A Pew Research Center survey last month pegged the Catholic population in the United States at about 51 million. CARA surveys using different methodology put the total closer to 76 million.
In Western Pennsylvania towns that once relied on steel mills or coal mining, “a lot of the Catholic population has moved away or died off,” Pittsburgh diocesan spokeswoman Ann Rodgers said. Certain parishes will have to be addressed as “emergency situations.”
But in places such as Upper St. Clair and Cranberry, parishes are booming. St. Kilian’s in Cranberry grew by 400 percent in the past decade to about 11,000 members.
The Pittsburgh diocese, which includes Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Lawrence, Greene and Washington counties, serves a 3,750-square-mile area made up of 633,117 Catholics, or one-third of the total population.
A parallel trend is promising: As Catholic priests’ numbers have declined, deacons have proliferated — from fewer than 900 permanent deacons nationwide in 1975 to nearly 17,500 by 2014, CARA data show.
Only priests can celebrate Mass, but deacons can perform weddings and conduct memorial services and baptisms; lay ministers can run youth groups and visit sick parishioners.
Over the next five years, the Pittsburgh diocese plans to train 21 deacon administrators who will oversee day-to-day management of parishes.
The Diocese of Greensburg implemented its first permanent deacon program 10 years ago. It has six such deacons now, with four more to be ordained Saturday.
“It gives the priests the opportunity to handle more of the sacramental ministry — confession, Mass, anointing the sick — and it gives us more time to visit nursing homes or hospitals,” said Ackerman.