Italian priests growing older, and over 6,000 disappeared in the last 30 years

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Italian priests growing older, and over 6,000 disappeared in the last 30 years

lastampa.it

"Not even a priest to chat with," sang the Italian singer-songwriter, Adriano Celentano. Fifty years later, this verse turned out to be prophetic for thousands of Italian parishes who are now faced with fewer than ever priests, all with busier schedules. Churchgoers have a hard time reaching them, saying they are ‘distant’. Official figures show that over the last three decades, the number of priests in Italy has been reduced 16 percent, while their average age has increased. Practitioners (who are also in decline) must get used to this loss: the parish priest is a less prominent presence in their lives as he, in addition to being a dominant figure at the local church, also leads sacraments, worship, oratory and social activities. Having this kind of reference point for the Christian Democratic community is now rare, and the Don Camillo series based off Giovannino Guareschi's novels and Fernandel (the irascible Italian village priest) is now a distant memory. Trend data on the last 30 years (1990-2019) from the Central Institute for the Support of the Clergy was shared with La Stampa by the sociologist Franco Garelli.

In May 2019, there were 32,036 diocesan priests in Italy, which is about about one priest every 1,900 inhabitants while in 1990, the diocesan clergy was composed of over 38,000 cassocks.

For the last 30 years, one third of the 25,610 Italian parishes have seen a shift from one single pastor to a collegial management of several priests who are occupied in several parishes, or to a single pastor shared with other parishes. It is the emptiness that worries the Church. It has brought "disorientation to the faithful, especially the older ones,” notes Garelli. Certainly, it is a novelty "that challenges the faith, because it makes one uncomfortable". But at the same time "the laity needs to get used to and to value these new dynamics; not to think of that the church [should be] under your house, when you travel miles every week to go to the supermarket, and every Sunday for a trip out of town.”

Increasingly older priests

Aging is another phenomenon to deeply affect the Church clergy. "If we make it a rule that priests over 80 years of age can no longer be occupy an ordinary pastoral role, an even more critical scenario emerges,” Garelli explains. The age gap worsens when priests under 70 years old are taken into account—they’ve declined by 31 percent. In 1990, 22.1 percent of priests were over 70 years, while today they make up 36 percent.”

Other figures that confirm the trend are the percentage of ‘young’ clergy and the average age. The priests under the age of 40 were 14 percent 29 years ago, while today "they represent no more than 10 percent". And in 1990 an average priest was 57, now it’s 62 years old. "We are facing a clergy at retirement age, if we apply to this category criteria that apply to most workers".

The North and parts of the Center of Italy are more deeply affected by the crisis than the South and the Islands. In the last 30 years, the regions of Piedmont, Liguria, and Triveneto, which are all rooted in strong Catholic tradition, have lost a third of their clergy. The region of Lombardy, “where Catholicism remains lively and organized among clergy and volunteers” has also been impacted—they’ve experienced a loss of 19 percent. In contrast, several regions of the South (Calabria, Campania, Puglia, Basilicata) "today have more clergy and vocations than in the past” and
“on average they are younger and more lively churches”. In short, over the years, the diocesan clergy is becoming "southernized".

The future of parishes

The crisis seems inexorable and what’s at stake is the future of parishes without priests is at stake. Nowadays, many priests (if they’re lucky) lead two or three parishes. But some of them, like Don Gianni Poli in the diocese of Trento, lead up 19. There are some thousands of vice-parish priests who can come to the priests’ aid, but the overarching fact is that it’s still not enough to sustain the entire network of parishes for the masses.

However, the dioceses have made do with their limited means. For instance, some favor the arrival of seminarians from other nations, in particular from Africa, Latin America and Asia. Elsewhere in Italy, experienced pastoral units (a strategy used for example by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini in Milan) are deployed for smaller parishes, which are then communally placed under the responsibility of a single parish priest. Pastoral units have also been transformed into pastoral communities: the parish remains, with a priest who lives there, but is inserted into a community that groups together several parishes under a manager.

For Domenico Sigalini, president of the Center for Pastoral Orientation, the decision to merge more parishes "should be seen as a missionary decision, with greater empowerment of the laity". It’s become essential as today’s parish priest works continuously "overtime". On Sundays, for instance, he holds various celebrations for communities in different places, often running from one church to another. And then there are baptisms and funerals. Marriages. Prayer and volunteer groups. The confessions. The sick to visit. The catechism. Meetings on meetings. Young people and the oratory to follow. Not to mention all the administrative and bureaucratic duties. Inundated by the weight of these responsibilities, this is why many pastors no longer answer their phones. This is why they cannot accept an invitation to some family's dinner or to listen to those in need of comfort.

Young people love the oratory

In these days in the Vatican, at the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region, they are currently discussing the possibility of ordering for "remote areas" the "viri probati", i.e. elderly and married men of "proven faith" to remedy the lack of the clergy. There are those who speak of female priesthood, and those who call for more space and responsibility for the laity. Either way, for Garelli, the first challenge concerns "the religious and social demand that Italians continue to raise in ecclesial circles". According to the Garelli’s research, “parishes and oratories continue to be places of significant public presence”. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of the population claims to go there with a certain regularity, and “there are many more sporadic or irregular practitioners”. “The majority continues to turn to the local Church for traditional rites of passage such as baptisms and funerals,” he says.

Furthermore, the "socialization of young people in ecclesial environments is still a widespread practice, involving a significant proportion of children and adolescents". In addition to the catechism and preparation for the sacraments, also for "moments of leisure and sport, or for associative commitments". About 60 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds in Italy attend the oratory. Even though "the idea that the parish is a dated formula" is increasingly widespread, 25 percent of the population speaks from time to time with a religious figure regarding personal matters. This is why priests are encouraged to live in close contact with the people, so as to continue to be "a spiritually fruitful presence amid the cacophony of the city and its many commitments.”

Tue, 10/15/2019 - 18:19
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