The effects of the priest shortage in the United States are being felt everywhere. 1,750 parishes have closed across the U.S. since 2000. 1 in 5 parishes do not have a resident priest. But a new story just posted by the Catholic News Service in Washington, reveals yet another consequence of the shortage. “There is a tremendous scarcity of priests,” lamented Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, the head of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services.
Indeed, the numbers are shocking. According to the archdiocese, the Army has 118 Catholic chaplains for roughly 100,000 active duty Catholic soldiers. The Air Force has about 60 for about 63,000 Catholic airmen. The Navy only has 52 active Catholic priests for its roughly 107,000 Catholic sailors and Marines.
In an effort to recruit more priests to the military chaplaincy, the Archdiocese for Military Services plans to hold its first discernment retreat weekend this October. And they’re apparently laying out the “red carpet.” The all-expenses-paid retreat will include housing in a Washington D.C. retreat house and visits to Joint Andrews Air Force Base, the U.S. Naval Academy, Fort Belvoir and the Pentagon. Attendees will also have the opportunity to meet with enlisted service men and women. Given that kind of treatment, the Archdiocese is clearly hanging a lot of hope on the retreat weekend.
But those hopes are misplaced. There’s a built-in problem: military age restrictions. New chaplain recruits to the Army must be less than 45 years of age; the National guard, 37; the Navy, 34; and the Air Force, 40. Among our youngest priests – those celebrating ordination in 2015 – the average age was 34. They’re not “old” by any means but they’re certainly pushing up against those age restrictions.
And the military has a mandatory retirement age of 62. The average age of priests in the U.S. is 63.
A handful of the younger priests might be interested. But it will hardly be enough to fulfill the demand. “It’s a priority to get more priests to serve as chaplains because we can still double the amount of priests in the military chaplaincy” and still have a need, according to Deacon Michael Yakir, archdiocesan chancellor.
Where do they think these priests are going to come from? It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
The women and men who wear the uniform arguably stand in greater need than the general public of the kind of pastoral care that priests provide. They put their lives in harm’s way, are forced to make difficult life-or-death decisions, and witness an enormity of loss and devastation.
To tap an already rare resource isn’t going to solve the problem. The takeaway message for our bishops should be “Support Our Troops: Open Ordination.”
By: Russ Petrus, Program Director FutureChurch