Question: What is one of the most significant changes in parish ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in the 21st Century?

Answer: A substantial and increasing number of “shared” pastors, associate pastors and administrators.

The “shared” designation refers to priests assigned to pastoral ministry at more than one parish simultaneously, attributed mainly to the declining number of active priests.

These “shared” listings became noticeable while reviewing the Catholic Herald’s Dec. 1 supplement of the 2017 Milwaukee Archdiocesan Directory, a detailed listing of parishes, priests, deacons, schools, statistics, along with parish changes since 1998.

As I studied the directory, I wondered: How has the archdiocese changed in the last 20 years?

A 1998 Wisconsin Pastoral Handbook in my “library” satisfied my curiosity. The pastoral handbook includes listings of all institutions and personnel of all five dioceses in the state: Milwaukee, Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison and Superior. It enabled me to make some interesting comparisons.

Contrasting the 1998 pastoral handbook to the 2017 archdiocesan directory, I discovered significant changes relating not only to “shared” ministry but to parishes, priests, sisters, infant baptisms and marriages.

For example:

Parishes with “shared” priests, associate pastors and administrators:

1998: none.

2017: 50-plus. Among them, I might add, is my own parish, St. Roman, Milwaukee, whose pastor Fr. Brian Holbus and associate pastor Fr. Norberto Sandoval share their ministry with St. Charles Borromeo.

Total number of parishes:

1998: 277.

2017: 198. The category of “parish changes” lists 50 parishes merged since July 1, 1998. Other forms of consolidation account for the remainder of the decline. Also, mergers resulted in new names for combined parishes.

Total number of diocesan priests:

1998: 505, including 357 active and 148 retired.

2017: 308, including 161 active and 147 listed as seniors.

Total number of sisters (no reference to active or retired):

1998: 2,335.

2017: 889.

Infant baptisms:

1998: 9,466.

2017: 5,485.

Marriages (Catholic and mixed):

1998: 3,500.

2017: 1,501.

The declining number of infant baptisms and marriages obviously will impact parishes in the future.

An obvious change not included in directory or handbook data is a declining number of priests living in parish rectories. Since priests have optional choices for living quarters/accommodations, it’s safe to say that currently many active and senior priests reside in individually-owned homes and condos or apartments.

From my own observation, it seems that any change will generate a certain amount of discontent. While many parishioners willingly or reluctantly accept change and remain faithful to their parish, others prefer to transfer to parishes more suited to their liking and spiritual needs.

While parishioners have personal concerns, let’s not forget the effects of change on our priests. Pastors and associate pastors of “shared” parishes are challenged to broaden their ministry to serve all the people entrusted to their care. But they can’t do it alone. To help them fulfill their assignments requires prayers, support and assistance from all parishioners.

Change is a test of faith and I believe in remaining faithful to the parish I have been a part of and served for more than 50 years.

To all, I say it’s a matter of choice. Everyone has a right to his or her thoughts and opinions and all also must be broad minded to respect choices and beliefs of others.

In all of this, there is one fundamental requirement: to serve God to the best of our ability. That’s how faith works. Our faith tends to bring us face to face with the unexpected and unpredictable as we examine the changes in the church from 1998 to 2017.

While we strive to fulfill our responsibilities as Catholic Christians, the unexpected may disturb our comfort zone. As for the future, faith may require us to climb uphill more often than we would prefer.

(Out and About is a regular feature of Mature Lifestyles that looks at issues affecting the older adult community. Horn, a retired Catholic Herald reporter, is a member of St. Roman Church, Milwaukee.)