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CARA report details the state of the parish

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Hairstyles change, fashions fluctuate and political parties go in and out of power. The Catholic Church in the United States has changed, too. A new book, Catholic Parishes in the 21st Century, from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, has tracked these trends. Many of the changes, such as greater ethnic diversity and a growing Catholic presence in the south and in the suburbs, are clearly visible within the Arlington Diocese.

Catholics on the move

In the first half of the 20th century, Catholics and their parishes were clustered primarily in cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Today, many Catholics have moved to the suburbs and are distributed evenly throughout the four regions of the United States. As Southern dioceses build new churches to accommodate the growing Catholic population, others make the difficult decision to close or merge parishes that are no longer sustainable.

 catholic parishes

The number of U.S. parishes peaked in the 1980s at around 19,000 parishes. The current total is around 17,000 parishes. While older churches were built with smaller capacities, the physical size of church buildings has expanded in recent years. Most church buildings are more than 50 years old. In 2010, nearly a third was more than 80 years old. 

As a primarily suburban diocese south of the Mason Dixon line, Arlington has benefited from these trends. In the last 20 years, the diocese has opened nine parishes, seven of which are located outside the populous Fairfax County. Since the diocese was founded in 1974, there has been only one parish merger. In 2002, St. John Church in Orange merged with St. Mark Church in Gordonsville to become St. Isidore the Farmer Church in Orange. 

Losing priests, gaining deacons and lay leaders

Many dioceses, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, may choose to close or merge parishes due to a declining number of priests or parishioners. Catholic Parishes states that 450-550 new priests are ordained for ministry in the U.S. each year. “However, the sobering reality is that this is only about a third of the number needed to compensate for the large numbers of elderly priests who are dying, retiring or otherwise leaving pastoral ministry,” it said. 

These statistics are troubling and the consequences of the priest shortage will force the church to adjust in coming years. But as the book points out, “no other world region except for Europe has as favorable a ratio of Catholics per priest as the United States” — 1,700 Catholics per priest.


The one growing group of clergy is permanent deacons. According to The Official Catholic Directory, there are more than 18,000 permanent deacons in the U.S. If the trend continues, the number of deacons will soon surpass the number of diocesan priests. Already one in four parishes nationwide has a deacon.

Though the diaconate formation program for the Arlington Diocese was suspended for years, nearly 50 men have been ordained to the permanent diaconate since 2011. Today, 76 permanent deacons are assigned to parishes. 

The 1990s saw the most priests ordained in the diocese — an average of seven men per year. An average of five men per year was ordained in the last seven years.

The slow decline of seminary recruits that began in the 1960s coupled with Vatican II’s directive for the laity to take a greater responsibility in leading the church has led to more lay people working in churches. In the early 2000s, the number of lay ecclesiastical ministers surpassed the total number of diocesan priests, reports Catholic Parishes. In dioceses where parishes outnumber priests, lay people, religious sisters or deacons, known as parish life coordinators, may be called on to run the parish instead. 

Catholic Parishes notes that lay ministers provide a vital role to the parish by specializing in areas such as finance, building maintenance or music, which the pastor may not enjoy or be trained in. Yet, because they often have advanced degrees and families to support, lay ministers also require adequate pay. Robust parishioner tithing is critical for parish staff salaries, upkeep for aging church structures as well as typical church activities. 

Catholic Parishes reports there is room for tithing improvement. “Nearly every study of Catholic giving conducted in the late 20th and 21st century has found that Catholics contribute about half as much to their parish, as a percentage of household income, as Protestants contribute,” according to the book.  The typical Catholic household contributes 1.1 to 1.2 percent of their income, though parishioners in smaller parishes, perhaps more aware of the necessity of their personal contribution, give more.

Bob Mueller, diocesan director of development, believes around 45 to 50 percent of Arlington Diocese parishioners donate regularly to their parish. Due to the affluence of the area and parishioners’ generosity, the diocese fares well financially compared to others. When parish leadership explains the importance of stewardship as part of the Christian life to parishioners, giving grows.


For decades, the Catholic Church in the United States was fueled by immigration. In the early 20th century, it was mostly through immigrants from European countries such as Ireland, Italy and Poland. They formed “national” parishes, with no physical boundaries, so immigrants could celebrate their own traditions and speak in their own language. 

The Arlington Diocese has only two “national” parishes: Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church in Arlington and St. Paul Chung Church in Fairfax for Korean speakers. Today, dioceses favor the “shared” parish model, where recent immigrants form communities within existing parishes. 

A good example is the Our Lady of La Vang community within St. Veronica Church in Chantilly, said Corinne Monogue, diocesan director of Multicultural Ministries. Though they share the same facilities, the Vietnamese and English-speaking communities have their own Masses, Knights of Columbus council, Legion of Mary and religious education classes. 

According to Catholic Parishes, “from 2005 to 2010, the average proportion of Caucasians in parishes decreased by nearly 3 percent, while the number of Asian and Hispanic parishioners increased by 17 percent. As many as one in four U.S. Catholic parishes celebrate their weekend liturgies in more than one language.”

The Arlington Diocese offers 43 Spanish Sunday liturgies, five in Korean and nine in Vietnamese. One Sunday liturgy each week is available for the Eritrean, Ghanaian and Syro-Malabar Indian communities. Masses in other languages, such as Tamil, Portuguese and Tagalog, are offered less frequently. 

Mass attendance nationally has dropped over the past decades. In 1965, around 55 percent of Catholics said they had gone to church in the last week, then 41 percent in 1985 and finally 24 percent in 2010. Yet, according to Catholic Parishes, “these data suggest that those attending Mass weekly today are more likely than those 50 years ago to be in the pews because they want to be there and not out of some sense of moral obligation, social pressure or guilty conscience.”

Overall, Catholic Parishes found that “the neighborhood parish is being transformed into the regional community parish, a site that relies on the collaboration and co-responsibility of available clergy, vowed religious and lay people.” The church in the United States will continue to adapt as American demographics and culture evolve. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017