I have a bad habit of letting important notices pile up in my email box, and thus I have neglected to post this October 12, 2017 news story from National Catholic Reporter, “Participation in lay ministry training programs down 16 percent.” To put it another way, researchers have observed a decline in the training of parish ministers, those who lead faith formation programs, catechumenates, Bible studies, sacramental preparation, youth ministry, marriage preparation, fundraising and development, administration, and every other facet of Church life. The NCR story cites the figures provided by CARA, The Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University. In the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 19,969 individuals enrolled in ministerial training programs across the country: 15,010 in diocesan certification programs, the remaining number seeking graduate degrees. In the 2015-2016 academic year, 23,681 individuals were enrolled.
There are two additional considerations worthy of concern. The most recent figures available put the total number of Catholic parishes in the United States at 17,483, per PEW Research Center. On average, one can surmise that by the raw numbers Catholicism in the United States is preparing at best one individual per parish for meaningful professional leadership in any aspect of ministry. It is fair for any Catholic to inquire as to the qualifications of the individual overseeing his or her child’s preparation for first sacraments, just as it is to scrutinize the theological backgrounds of those leading the numerous Bible studies in so many parishes. On the matter of Bible studies, Scripture is a particularly difficult discipline to master to the degree that one is not actually disseminating errant information and/or personal impressions instead of the content mined by the best minds of the Church over two millennia.
The second issue is confusion throughout the Church about the exact meaning of ministerial training and a universal set of standards. Look at your own parish and ask yourself how much training a fifth-grade catechist brings to the learning experience. I have—with some trepidation—raised this point to parish coordinators, who often will point out that nearly all catechists are unpaid volunteers, and that a parish is lucky to have them for one session per week. Some, though certainly not all, parish directors cannot bring themselves to enforce standards of training requirements and standards of measurable competence for catechists and other ministers, on the argument that we are asking too much already from catechists and other volunteers.
Moreover, there is the challenge about how one acquires ministerial competence, and whether a standard of academic and theological norms exists throughout the country and is recognized across diocesan lines. The United States is a mobile country, and Florida particularly so. During my years as diocesan instructor students asked me if they could take my advanced courses; they would produce certificates of accomplishment from far away dioceses such as Rockville Center, N.Y., or Yakima, Washington. Neither their local parish superiors nor our diocesan officers can ascertain precisely what constitutes competency training in all 197 dioceses in the United States, as there is no national set of standards.
The United States Conference of Bishops, as recently as this year, has addressed the need for universal certification standards of excellence by placing the matter in the hands of state conferences of bishops and professional associations of long standing, such as the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, working in regional tandem. National inter-diocesan certification or reciprocity is a stated priority. All the pertinent USCCB documents call for high standards of formation for all church ministers, particularly those engaged in faith formation.
Many dioceses have taken independent initiatives to provide theological formation within the constraints noted above. The question is whether the horses will drink once led to the water. My home diocese of Orlando offered regional weekend theological formation workshops locally as well as participation in the on-line Virtual Learning Community of Catholic Dayton University. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, the on-line Dayton program was “found hard and not tried.” The live weekend programs were admittedly difficult, the sacrifice of a full Saturday, but attracted at least some of our targeted population. However, there was nowhere near full certification.
About one year ago our bishop mandated full compliance in an on-line certification program created, as I understand it, by the Archdiocese of Chicago. The bishop used a big stick—contract renewal—to assure compliance, which brought more Catholic school teachers into the formative mold. Compliance by volunteer ministers such as catechists—those without contracts—still depends upon implementation at the parish level.
The chief hurdle in Catholic Faith Formation is overcoming a minimalist approach to both content and competence. For some individuals and communities, the paradigm for catechetics is the formulary imparting of highlights of the Catechism before the “graduation rite” of Confirmation. This concept is still very much alive and unwell, as much as we regret it. In recent years there is new emphasis upon small faith groups and communal Bible sharing. The model has Biblical and historical roots. Whether it succeeds or fails will depend upon how well the leaders—and by extension the members themselves—are willing to immerse themselves into the preparatory work of studying the corpus of the Scriptures and the full Catholic tradition. But, who will teach them?
The decline in those seeking professional training in ministry will guarantee one thing: an exponential decline in a grasp of the Catholic Tradition with each succeeding generation. I would bet the farm that today’s Catholic knows about 25% of what a 1970 Catholic would know of his or her Church. There is one obvious answer to this decline: religious sister in schools and CCD programs, professional teachers, imparted faith formation. Priests, religious, professors from local Catholic Colleges and seminaries engaged in wholesale adult education efforts. Today, who are the professionals? If the research is correct, there is barely one per parish in the pipeline today.