At least once a year, a major newsroom in the United States produces a big story about the OTHER Catholic crisis in this land, which is the declining number of men entering the priesthood (and women and men entering religious orders, as well). The American priesthood is getting smaller and older.
It is possible to write this story over and over, year after year, covering the same ground and pretending that this is a “news trend.” However, skilled journalists can find new wrinkles within this decades-old story and, thus, do fresh reporting.
That’s good. And that is clearly what The New York Times national desk was going for in an interesting news feature that ran under the headline. “In Two Michigan Villages, a Higher Calling Is Often Heard.”
So what is the new angle? Well, it appears that there are small, intensely Catholic communities that are producing way more than their share of priests. Why is that? What does that look like on the ground?
What really jumped out at me was that the Times team actually — buried near the end of this piece — came close to discussing a really crucial demographics issue linked to this big story. More on that later.
At the heart of this piece are 26-year-old twin brothers, Gary Koenigsknecht and Todd Koenigsknecht, who are about to be ordained as Catholic priests. The story notes that they will be “two of 477 men in the United States expected to be ordained this year.”
They demonstrate that priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography: they are among six priests in their extended family, and among 22 from their hometown, Fowler, Mich., population 1,224. They officially tie up the leader board with the neighboring village of Westphalia, population 938, which has also produced 22 priests, making for a robust rivalry in both football and Roman collars.
In an era when the number of priests in the United States continues to dwindle — declining by 11 percent in the past decade and crippling the Catholic Church’s ability to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population — this rural patch of Clinton County offers a case study in the science and mystery of the call to priesthood.
With the older generation of priests dying off, it would take three times as many priestly ordinations as is occurring nationwide to maintain the population of 38,600 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
The story updates all of the dire statistics, as it should.
But the strongest material in the piece, from my perspective, is the detailed background information — high up in the report — about what Catholic life is like in these parishes. What’s going on here?