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Surveys, statistics, data, graphs and trend studies have their place when we look at and analyze the “church life” (and “synagogue life,” and all the rest) that makes up a major part of “public religion,” (our weekly topic) in American life.
They tell us how things are, collectively and from a distance. Now and then a reporter and a newspaper present the up-close view that tells so much.

Thus, we can talk about “the priest shortage” in national terms and gain some sense of the unsettlement or crisis.

A close-up of one jurisdiction or one archdiocese brings the crisis home, where it is felt most.

So it was when Sharon Otterman focused on a story headlined “ForOneNewPriest, aLonelyDistinction,” and subheaded, “Class of 2012 in New York Archdiocese Consists of the Rev. Patric D’Arcy.”

One picture shows a pensive Father D’Arcy in an empty church; a second shows him blessing his brother and sister, and a third has him kneeling in St. Patrick’s Cathedral before Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the most influential Catholic cleric in the nation.

The gap between the image of the cardinal in the cathedral and the life of the lonely priest may quicken more interest than statistics about the priesthood nationally.

In the United States, there were 58,909 priests in 1975 and 38,466 last year.

There were 994 priestly ordinations in 1965 and there were 467 in 2011. In 1965, there were 549 parishes without a resident priest pastor, and there were 3,249 last year.

See what I mean? Cold statistics impress the mind, but do not move the heart. 

Declines in the number of clergy are not unique to Roman Catholicism. Declaration: the downturn and shortage in one religious body are not occasions for celebration or expressing Schadenfreude (joy in the misfortunes of others) in others.

Yet to understand, it is valuable to take up crises one at a time, as did the New York Times story with lonely Father D’Arcy. He’s not absolutely alone; “he lives with two more senior priests in the rectory.”

The future? The trend in attendance is up a bit in the Yonkers seminary, but the archdiocese needs 20 new priests a year, not one or five, to fill open positions as these “senior clergy” will not long be on the scene.

D’Arcy says he’s usually treated kindly, but he has been spit upon in Canada (his home) and New York, thanks to the “dark cloud” left by the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

In current culture, “there is an air of anti-Catholicism, anti-Christianity, anti-religion, maybe,” says D’Arcy, whose views may be colored by his involvement with Opus Dei and commitment to ultra-conservative views.

This is not the week to describe ways in which the archdiocese tries to compensate for the decline in priestly numbers. Nor is it the place to butt in with suggestions for obvious ways to change the situation.

It is the moment to picture the lonely priest in a large parish in a large diocese.

Father D’Arcy speaks: “[It] is a very real problem, that I don’t have brother priests my age: for me, it’s a little sensitive. … You need time and leisure,” and chances to spend them with peers. No way, now.

An aside, a comparison, a conclusion: I was ordained “to the Office of Holy Ministry,” as Lutherans put it, 60 years ago next month.

Parish ministry is now 50 years behind me, but I remember what a huge part in the sustenance of morale, spiritual growth, friendship, fun and counsel the company of (then) large numbers of classmates and peers mattered.

Empathy for Father D’Arcy comes easily. Moving beyond that is an issue for more than Catholics. 

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

Statistics about Catholic priests can be found here

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