New survey of successful US dioceses: lessons for Australia

New survey of successful US dioceses: lessons for Australia

Michael Gilchrist

Results of a statistical survey of the United States' 176 Catholic dioceses have just been published in Crisis magazine (February/March 2007 issue). Titled The State of the Catholic Church in America Diocese by Diocese, the survey was carried out by Rev Rodger Hunter-Hall and Steven Wagner.

The better-known orthodox bishops and dioceses - such as Archbishop Chaput (Denver) and Bishop Bruskewitz (Lincoln) - ranked well, while long-time liberal dioceses, such as Milwaukee, Albany and Rochester, fared very poorly. Not all dioceses fitted this pattern, due to other factors, but there was an evident correlation between success and strongly orthodox leadership.

Three sets of official Church statistics were used: a diocese's number of ordinations as a proportion of the total number of active diocesan priests; the increase in number of active diocesan clergy over a ten year period (1995-2005); and the number of adults received into the Church as a percentage of a diocese's population.

The survey's authors noted, 'If these three measures imperfectly reflect the vitality of the dioceses, they are a pretty good start. The change in the size of the priesthood and the effort invested in increasing vocations and adult receptions do say something fundamental about the state of the dioceses'.

Further information that might have fine-tuned the comparisons, like Mass attendances rates, was presumably difficult to obtain for all dioceses.

Ordained priests

The first criterion of success, the number of ordained priests, was measured as a proportion of a diocese's total number of active priests. The leading diocese here was the very small Las Cruces, New Mexico, with three new priests out of a total of 21 (14 percent). Chicago (under Cardinal Francis George) had the greatest single number with 17.

In 1995, 45 dioceses reported no ordinations, while in 2005 the figure was 48. The survey noted: 'It seems the persona of a bishop is all important. Increasingly men are seeking out congenial bishops and seminaries.'

Overall, the number of active diocesan priests declined from 22,000 in 1995 to 18,000 in 2005, with 385 diocesan ordinations in 1995 and 335 in 2005.

The survey suggested, 'a bishop could contribute to a climate in which priests from overseas or other dioceses are attracted, or remain eager to serve beyond retirement'.

Twenty-nine dioceses (16 percent) saw an increase in the number of active priests from 1995-2005, the best being the small diocese of Tyler, Texas, with a 128 percent increase. The vast majority showed a decline.

During 2005, 149,306 adults were received into the Church in the US, or about 0.2 percent of the total Catholic population (almost 66 million). Here, the most successful diocese was that of Kansas City-St Joseph in Missouri (under Bishop Robert Finn), with a 3.2 percent reception rate, or 16 times the national average.

In order to arrive at a composite rating, each diocese was ranked according to each of the three measures and the ranks then combined. But even more interesting than the overall ranking of dioceses for 2005 was the change in ranking between 1995 and 2005. Large shifts, either up or down, might reveal something about the condition of a diocese.

The worst region of the US - with an average ranking of 136 - was the Northeast (New England) which has the highest percentage of Catholics in the population. The most successful region was the South - with an average ranking of 49 - where Catholics comprise the lowest proportion of the population.

A priest in the Knoxville Diocese (Tennessee), ranked number one in the survey (and number two in 1995), commented: 'We are outnumbered, we are young, we are building churches, we are growing, there is an enthusiasm for evangelisation among the laity'.

There was also a strong correlation between size of a diocese and ranking. Smaller dioceses - those with 100,000 adherents or fewer - were disproportionately represented among the higher rankings, while larger dioceses - with 500,000 or more adherents - were heavily represented among the lower rankings.

The influence of bishops could be seen in the case of neighbouring dioceses, broadly similar in size, region, socio-economic status, ethnicity and population movements, yet having vastly different rankings.

Factors in success

The survey then sought to pinpoint possible factors in the successes of individual dioceses, speaking with officials in the top-rated dioceses. It found the most striking common factors were that successful bishops attribute their success to the Holy Spirit, are 'joyful', exude enthusiasm for the Faith and the Church, are confident in what the faith offers and teaches and are not apologetic for being Catholic.

The survey also found that successful bishops are personally involved in leading men to discern a vocation and in promoting the morale of their priests and take a direct role in evangelisation programs. Diocesan-sponsored Web sites also reflected the character of successful dioceses, with easy access to information on how to become a Catholic, return to the Faith, or consider a vocation. Prominence tends to be given to the sanctity of marriage and pro-life issues, as well as other topics related to the Church's doctrinal teachings.

The survey's authors concluded that the Church needs 'to recognise the characteristics common to successful bishops, and to systematically elevate priests with an appropriate profile'. Successful strategies for evangelisation and vocations promotion need to be drawn upon and applied in less successful areas.

There are lessons here for Australia.

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