Editor’s Note: This is a first of a three-part monthly series done as a partnership with the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.
As the number of parishes, parishioners and priests continues to decline in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Greensburg and Pittsburgh, those tasked with shepherding the flock are working to retain those who continue to practice the Catholic faith and find priests to serve them.
The decline, said Ellen Mady, chancellor of Canonical Services with the Diocese of Pittsburgh, “has been consistent both with a general decline in population as well as a general decline in the number of people” practicing the Catholic faith."
The same is true in the Greensburg Diocese, which includes Fayette, Westmoreland, Armstrong and Indiana counties, officials there said. The Pittsburgh Diocese includes the counties of Washington, Greene, Allegheny, Beaver, Lawrence and Butler.
In 1979 the Pittsburgh Diocese had 912,959 Catholics. That same year, there were 234,105 in the Greensburg Diocese. By 2018, the number had dropped 30% to 630,379 in the Pittsburgh Diocese and 23% to 132,617 in the Greensburg Diocese.
The reason why isn’t easy to pinpoint, said Mady.
“The decline in church participation in particular has been affected by a variety of factors — demographic, cultural and spiritual among them,” Mady said. “It is difficult to draw a direct correlation between any one factor and the decline.”
According to the U.S. Religion Census sponsored by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Catholicism is the most widely practiced religion in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties. The Religion Census, conducted every 10 years, reports the number of congregations and congregants in each county across the United States for 236 faith groups.
The most recent numbers, from 2010, show a drop in practicing Catholics in all four counties. The largest drop was reported in Fayette, where the number shrunk 56%, from 56,515 in 1980 to 24,544 in 2010.
Greene County showed the smallest decrease at 11%, and Washington and Westmoreland counties both showed a 21% falloff in Catholics over those two decades.
In both the Greensburg and Pittsburgh dioceses, officials said parishioner population statistics are gathered through an annual report done by individual parishes. The report includes the number of people attending church, new registrations, households, deaths, baptisms, weddings and confirmations.
The number of baptisms, which bring a new member into the church, versus funerals in the Diocese of Greensburg is evidence of the declining population.
In 1979, the diocese reported 2,990 infant baptisms and 2,211 parishioner funerals. Last year, 781 babies received the sacrament of baptism and there were 1,800 parishioner funerals.
“If there was just one issue, then we can focus all of our time, energy and resources onto it, but like so many issues that we’re facing today, it’s multifaceted,” said Msgr. Larry Kulick, vicar general of the Diocese of Greensburg.
And fewer parishioners have necessitated fewer parishes to serve the area’s Catholics, officials in both dioceses said.
There are 39% fewer parishes in the Greensburg Diocese, where 118 parishes in 1979 were cut to 78 by 2018. The Pittsburgh Diocese was even harder hit, losing 44% of its parishes during the same time.
There are also fewer men entering into the priesthood.
“It’s a tremendous decline,” said Kulick, noting a 66% decline in clergy between 1979 and 2018.
Kulick said those factors can include anything from the influence of today’s culture of materialism and secularism, to a priest’s additional responsibilities. The Pittsburgh Diocese had 58% fewer priests (388) last year than it did in 1979 (922).
“They want to have a deeper spiritual relationship with God, but increasing administrative responsibilities sometimes overshadow what’s supposed to be at the heart a priestly ministry,” Kulick said.
More than half of the parishes in the Greensburg Diocese are staffed by a priest who is shared by at least one other parish, he said.
Kulick said he could offer no simple reason for fewer men entering the priesthood, but said he feels the decline is an overall difficulty with the idea of giving oneself to a life of service.
But he remains hopeful.
“When you look in other denominations, we’re doing better in ministerial recruitment,” Kulick said. “We have to focus on building a culture of vocations — vocations to healthy married life, vocations to single life, vocations to priesthood and religious life.”
An International Priest Program, started nearly 10 years ago, brings priests from other countries to the Greensburg Diocese to serve a five-year term.
“The priests, they view themselves as missionaries,” Kulick said. “They go back and are able to use and apply and teach what they’ve learned here. It’s a wonderful win-win situation.
As the dioceses grapple with fewer parishioners, officials in both are making efforts to connect with and retain the faithful who continue to practice.
The Greensburg Diocese reached out directly to its members between the ages of 20 and 50, asking them what church officials could do to better connect. Overwhelmingly, respondents asked for better accessibility, including a reformatting of the Catholic Accent, the church’s newsletter that reaches about 40,000, offering an online edition and being better connected with the faithful through social media platforms.
The diocese is also working to better serve disabled and homebound, as well as linguistically and ethnically diverse Catholics, officials said.
Mady said churches within the Pittsburgh Diocese are focused on renewal, and finding effective ways of carrying out the church’s mission to help people on their journey toward God.
“Many different parishes have a wide variety of events and activities on the local level seeking to foster renewal, fellowship and catechesis,” Mady said.
She said the diocese is trying to address logistical and structural challenges through its On Mission for the Church Alive! program.
The diocesan-wide initiative invited all Catholics to envision how their parishes could respond to today’s church while seeking renewal and revitalization.
“The process involves realignment of resources in every district of the diocese and will result in new structures, staffing and strategies for our parishes,” Mady said.
Preparation for the initiative started in 2015 with the new groupings of parishes went into effect late last year.
“At that time, 188 parishes across the diocese began collaborating together as 57 groupings,” Mady said. “Many of the groupings have begun sharing staff and resources, and developing evangelization and outreach programs within their groupings.”
Each grouping has been examining resources to determine what can be changed in individual churches.
While different groupings have different timelines, Mady said five of the groupings have already completed the merger process, which led to the establishment of five new parishes. St. Matthias Parish in Greene County brought together five parishes, closing some churches.