Priest shortage could alter religious identities at Catholic colleges
Associated Press Writer
PHILADELPHIA – The shortage of Roman Catholic clergy isn’t just being felt in church.
Religious orders that have founded and run Catholic colleges and universities across the U.S. – in some cases for more than a century – are grappling with how to retain the institutions’ distinct religious identities in the face of declining numbers of priests and nuns.
The Rev. Timothy Lannon, president of Saint Joseph’s University, can envision a time when a lay person will lead the Jesuit school in Philadelphia because of the dwindling number of his brethren. So it’s important now to instill the order’s philosophy on campus through curriculum and staff initiatives, he said.
“Without Jesuits, how can you call yourself Jesuit?” Lannon said.
Saint Joseph’s is not alone, said Richard Yanikoski, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
As religious orders shrink, the critical challenge is for Catholic identity “to be built into the goals and operations and practices of the institution,” Yanikoski said.
Retaining that identity was somewhat easier in previous generations when priests and nuns who ran the schools wore religious garb as they carried out teaching and administrative duties, he said.
“Everyone could see the Catholic identity of the institution in those people,” said Yanikoski.
Yet diminishing numbers, and members of orders opting for secular dress, have combined to change that sensibility at places like Saint Xavier University in Chicago, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy and where Yanikoski served as the third lay president.
The school’s student body has changed as well, said university spokesman Joseph Moore. While the percentage of Catholics is still very high, today’s students grew up under Vatican II reforms and are less steeped in what might be considered traditional Catholic culture, he said. They are required to take two religion courses, but not necessarily on Catholicism.
Saint Xavier tries to maintain its roots by offering a “peer mentoring” program in which staff members periodically meet after work for informal, faculty-led discussions on what it means to work in a Catholic institution.
But it’s still a challenge. Only two sisters remain among the faculty at the 5,700-student campus, Moore said. Five more work in other roles at the school.
Overall, the Chicago congregation of sisters has dropped from 800 to 200 since 1967, and the median age is now 79, Moore said.
The story is similar for Jesuits, whose numbers have been decreasing since the 1960s, according to the Jesuit Conference of the United States. Currently, there are about 3,000 nationwide and their average age is 60.
Overall, the number of religious order priests in the U.S. has dropped from about 23,000 in 1965 to 13,000 this year. That’s a decline of 43 percent – steeper than the 30 percent slide in total number of priests nationwide during that period, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Catholic higher education is also important in terms of developing the next generation of leaders in the church, Yanikoski said.
“We know that leadership talent has to be systematically developed. If we don’t do it in Catholic colleges and universities, where will it be done?”said Pope Benedict XVI.
, who addressed the presidents of the nation’s more than 200 Catholic universities during his U.S. visit in April.
He told the educators that they “have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice.”
At La Salle University in Philadelphia, the founding Christian Brothers also face shrinking numbers, said Brother Joseph Willard, executive assistant to the school president.
To supplement the presence of 38 brothers who work on campus, the college offers La Sallian leadership training to its lay staff to help infuse the order’s values of faith, service and community, Willard said.
“We consider being Catholic in name and Catholic in reality is very much what our mission is about,” Willard said. “The mission of the brothers can’t die with the brothers.”
Saint Joseph’s has a similar program for lay staff based on the “spiritual exercises” of St. Ignatius, the Jesuit patron. The 12- to 24-week program is designed to help participants strengthen their relationship with God and make decisions within the context of Gospel values.
The school, which has about two dozen priests working on campus, also plans to offer a biannual seminar on Ignatian teaching for faculty, officials said.
For students, the 57-year-old Lannon spearheaded an effort to create a required course called “Faith, Justice and the Catholic Tradition” – one component of a revised core curriculum approved last week by university trustees. A previous religion requirement did not specifically include a course on Catholicism.
The new class is meant to ensure that students understand key doctrines in Catholicism and the Jesuits’ commitment to social justice, compassion for the poor and searching for God in all things, said provost Brice Wachterhauser.
“Our hope is to produce a deeper understanding of our institutional roots and commitments,” he said.
Saint Joe’s sophomore Marissa Foster, who grew up Methodist in Scranton, Pa., said she’s interested in the Jesuit tradition and thinks the required class is a good idea.
“I don’t think I’d go out on my own” and learn about it, she said.
But interacting with priests outside the classroom is important too, Foster said. Seeing Lannon – who lives among students in university housing – and other Jesuits regularly on campus and in classrooms helps create a unique, tight-knit spiritual community.
Losing that connection would be hard, she said.
“It would definitely change the atmosphere,” Foster said. “It wouldn’t be the same.”