In accepting NFPC’s Mandatum award, Jesuit Father Thomas Gaunt addresses challenge of the Church’s geography, mobility, and diversity

Fr. Tom Gaunt, SJ (left) and Fr. Tony Cutcher, NFPC President

Fr. Tom Gaunt, SJ (left) and Fr. Tony Cutcher, NFPC President

As the Executive Director of CARA [Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate] I am delighted to be here to accept the Mandatum Award on behalf of the Center’s research team.  Over the years CARA has collaborated with the National Federation of Priests’ Councils on a number of projects focused on the life and ministry of priests serving the people of God in the United States.

About eight years ago CARA collaborated with NFPC on a national study of priests that was the continuation of a series of studies begun by Father Andrew Greeley in 1970.  That was the fifth in a series and it resulted in the book Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood since Vatican II published in 2012.  CARA is looking forward to continuing the collaboration with NFPC in the near future for a sixth survey of priests.

And what might we expect to be the major changes and challenges for priests in this second decade of the second millennium?  Two things in particular come to mind…

First, the continuing challenge of geography and mobility for the Catholic population in the United States.  We often think of dioceses and parishes as stable entities providing enduring structures and institutions to support and serve Catholics.  Yet the past few decades have been a time of great mobility as younger Catholics pursue jobs and opportunities moving from ethnic neighborhood parishes of the Northeast and Midwest to booming, more suburban, mega-parishes in the South and West.  It is the challenge that people move but the buildings and infrastructure stay put.  Depending on your geography, as a pastor you may be confronted with rows of empty pews and mounting maintenance costs, or managing the logistics of each Sunday Mass having 1,000 plus worshipers and buying land for ever expanding parking lots!

Second, the Catholic community of the United States is increasing in its cultural diversity and is constantly being enriched by an immigrant population unmatched in over a century.  The majority of Catholic families today are Hispanic, Asian, or African-American in contrast to the Catholic community of our youth.  In 1980 about one in ten Catholic adults were immigrants, by 2015 over one-quarter of all Catholic adults were immigrants.  Cultural diversity and immigration bring new devotions and religious practices into our parishes to enliven them, but they can also confound us and frustrate us as we try to minister in new languages so as to animate and lead such a universal Church.  All of this is further accentuated as the priesthood itself becomes more culturally diverse and more priests are themselves immigrants and missionaries.

If we take a longer historical view, we see that the present cultural diversity and immigration in the U.S. Catholic Church is only matched by the waves of European immigrants that came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  At that time, the Church in the U.S. was pulled apart, experiencing serious divisions and in some cases, schism.  A century ago the waves of immigrants (primarily from Europe) found a US Church often polarized by its differences.  The untold and unrecognized story of our own day is how successful the US Church is in welcoming and accepting the recent waves of immigrants who are coming from Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  There are still many problems and tensions, but these are like night and day compared to 100 years ago.  Pastors, parish leaders, and bishops have risen to the challenge of cultural diversity in recent years in a manner that often goes unrecognized.

The CARA research team, in collaboration with Chuck Zech at the Villanova University Center for Church Management and Business Ethics, has just finished writing a book on the Catholic parish of the 21st century.  It should be published by the end of the year.  In writing the book we documented the extent and variety of changes that have occurred in American parishes over the past 25 years.  The NFPC, individual presbyteral councils, and the thousands of pastors across the country should take great pride in how they have creatively and successfully engaged and managed the change, the diversity, and increasing complexity of parish life today.

CARA is grateful for the repeated invitations from NFPC to collaborate in efforts to better understand American priests and parish life in America.  We are honored to assist you in being a voice and resource for the Church in the United States as you engage these changes, proclaim God’s Word, and build up the Body of Christ.

On behalf of the CARA research team, thank you for this award.

Father Thomas Gaunt, SJ
Executive Director, CARA
NFPC 48th Annual Convocation,
Marriott East Hotel, Indianapolis, Indiana
April 20, 2016