How is the Diocese of Baton Rouge going to serve the sacramental needs of a growing Catholic population with a declining number of priests?

Only Bishop Robert W. Muench can answer that question, and sooner or later, he’ll have to — but not just yet.

When he does, Muench will be relying on data compiled from a recent survey of the diocese conducted by the Pastoral Planning Task Force.

Led by the Rev. Trey Nelson, pastor of St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church, the Task Force was organized at the bishop’s behest three years ago and is comprised of about 35 diocese officials and volunteers. Over the summer, the group visited all 67 church parishes, met with all the priests who filled out a confidential survey, talked with several focus groups, including the Youth Board, and collected more than 300 surveys.

All of that information is being compiled by SSA Consultants of Baton Rouge, and Nelson said the Task Force plans to present a final report to the bishop before the end of the year.

“The No. 1 issue is how do we provide sacramental ministry to the faithful with fewer priests than we used to have, and what we project to be even fewer in the future,” Nelson said. “That was the practical bottom line. How do we do that?”

In a written statement, Muench commended the Task Force on its work.

“A tremendous amount of data has been collected and is being evaluated prior to the Task Force submitting its report to me by the end of the year,” Muench said. “I look forward to receiving those recommendations and to continuing the consultative process at the diocese before any suggestions are finally implemented.”

Nelson said the Task Force first looked at what other dioceses are doing and found that the Baton Rouge diocese already is ahead of the national curve to reorganize parishes, called “clustering,” where one pastor or priest serves multiple parishes.

In the past few years, the diocese has clustered 22 parishes into 10 and “suppressed” five parishes, according to the survey’s description.

“It will be hard to cluster any more parishes, but it’s a possibility … but we haven’t made that recommendation,” Nelson said.

One recommendation they will make is the creation of a new diocese position, a “go-to” person, Nelson said, for the priests to call when they can’t serve the Eucharist. For example, if a priest becomes ill or suffers a death in his family, that “go-to” person will find someone to cover his services.

“Reconfiguration of services is a possibility,” Nelson said. “Where and how to celebrate the Mass to meet the needs of the people — it all comes down to priestly availability.”

More Catholics, fewer priests

According to statistics from its website, as of Dec. 10, 2014, the Diocese of Baton Rouge had 222,937 Catholics in 67 church parishes, which encompasses 5,405 square miles of 12 civil parishes.

In 1961, when the diocese was established, there were 150,000 Catholics.

Today, there are 82 priests in the diocese, compared with 135 in 1988 when Nelson said he was ordained. Of those serving today, nine are eligible to retire in the next three years and nine are retired priests who are still “helping out,” according to the diocese and Task Force statistics.

The average age of the priests is 55, and retirement is mandatory at 68, said Nelson, who is 53. There are 20 men enrolled in seminary and two are expected to be ordained in the next two years. In 1961, there were 90 seminarians.

A positive response

Despite the challenges ahead, Nelson said he feels good about the Task Force’s work.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “Let’s be honest,” he added, “people are anxious, they’re a little worried. We all are, but the fact that we were in positive territory in all those (survey) responses is unheard of,” according to what SSA Consultants told him.

“I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much people love the church, how much they love their priest and how concerned they are about their priest’s health and happiness,” Nelson said.

But not everybody believes that something good will come of the report, Nelson said, and that included some clergy.

Nelson attended 12 of the parish visits and said the people he met, “the grass roots,” were glad the diocese was interested in their opinions.

“Wherever we went, people said, ‘We will do whatever we need to do.’ ”

The future

As far as young men going into the priesthood or young women becoming nuns, Nelson said their youth survey showed not much interest.

When asked, “Would your family be supportive of you pursuing a vocation?” the answers were 80 percent yes, Nelson said. But when asked if their peers would be supportive, he said 80 percent of the answers were no.

“I guess there are a lot of people out there, young and old, who don’t necessarily see it as a fulfilling life or don’t see a life of celibacy or chastity or being nonmarried as a happy, positive way to go,” Nelson said.

But when teens are asked to go on mission trips, they all want to serve, he said.

“I think the bottom line is, kids want to get married and have kids,” Nelson said. “I’ve had a dozen guys in college tell me they’d do it, but they want to have a family.”

Nelson said they want the laity to know they are doing something about the issue.

“I can’t make people believe that this is going to bear fruit but it is already bearing fruit,” Nelson said. “We want the Lord to lead us the way we need to go.”