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This coming November, four dioceses in the United States will celebrate 175-year anniversaries: Chicago, Hartford, Milwaukee, and Little Rock. A closer look at the history and present realities of these dioceses offers us a glimpse of the ways that the Catholic Church in the United States is changing.
Church historians have long described the story of the Catholic Church in the United States as a story of immigration and growth. In 1843, this country’s bishops recognized that the population of the United States was beginning to shift: the 1840 census showed that of the 100 most populous cities and towns, 24 were in Massachusetts, 15 in Pennsylvania, and 10 in New York. By 1850, many cities outside the Northeast had grown significantly, including Cincinnati, Chicago, New Orleans, and Saint Louis.
That decade also saw the beginning of the mass migration of Irish fleeing the potato famine, settling initially in cities like Boston and New York, and later throughout the country. The Catholic population was changing, drawing in new immigrant groups with distinct linguistic and cultural traditions, and so the establishment of these new dioceses marked an important moment in the Church’s pastoral response.
The 175th anniversary of the four dioceses offers us a moment to recall that this kind of demographic change is nothing new, but it also gives us an opportunity to appreciate the way that the Church in the United States continues to grow and change. Much has been written in recent years about the changing demographics in the Church over the last half century. The Catholic population in the Northeast and Midwest—which had grown so significantly due to immigration of the 19th and 20th centuries—has been declining, while the Catholic population in mission dioceses has been growing. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of parish affiliated Catholics in mission dioceses grew by 1.9 million from 2005 to 2015, a 14 percent change over that period. In comparison, all the other dioceses of the United States grew by only .9 million, a change of only 2 percent.
Unlike Hartford, Chicago, and Milwaukee, all of which show declining Catholic populations, the Catholic Church in the United States continues to grow, just as it has every five years over the past half century, according to the Official Catholic Directory. This growth is primarily among Hispanics, who now constitute a majority of Catholic young people, and it is strongest in the West and Southwest. Consider, though, the headline “Foreign born Catholics keep membership steady”, which seems to suggest that only immigrants are keeping the Church afloat in the face of massive numbers of Catholics leaving the Church. That headline, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2015, could just as easily have been written 50 or 100 years ago: The Church has always provided pastoral care to immigrants.
Bishop Anthony Taylor with Jeff Hebert at the ordination ceremony in the Diocese of Little Rock on May 26, 2018. Photo by Bob Ocken/Arkansas Catholic.
The Diocese of Little Rock is a good example of what has changed. Among the four dioceses celebrating anniversaries in November, it is the only one that shows a growth in the Catholic population over the past two years. Chicago, Hartford, and Milwaukee’s Catholic population shrank by about 1.4 percent between 2016 and 2017, while Little Rock’s grew by about 3.4 percent.
Similarly, Little Rock is also a diocese which produces abundant vocations to the priesthood. This year alone, it is celebrating the ordination of eight men to the diocesan priesthood, more than the older and larger dioceses of Boston or Baltimore. Since 2015, Little Rock has ordained 17 men to the priesthood—that’s one for every 9171 Catholics, a ratio almost four times more than the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
To highlight the difference a little more, the bishop of Little Rock, Anthony Taylor, who celebrates his 10th anniversary as the bishop of the diocese, has ordained half of the priests now ministering there. The diocese is growing, driven largely by Hispanic (especially Mexican) migration, but it is also drawing young men to the priesthood from within its ranks of the born-and-raised-there. Of the eight new priests ordained in late May and early June, six were born in the United States. Two are Hispanic, one is Vietnamese, and the rest are non-Hispanic white.
Those of us who live in the older urban centers of the United States often tell a story of a Church in decline: We see closing parishes and schools and tighten our lips at the fear of young people leaving the Church. But there is another story to tell: a new center of the Church in the United States, driven by a dynamic remarkably similar to the stories of our grandparents or great-grandparents. Those who live within that narrative are more quick to point out how faith communities are thriving, and priests are living fulfilled lives of ministry.
Nor should any of this surprise us who have faith that the Lord hears the cry of the poor, and calls forth a people to build his kingdom in the world.
Tim Muldoon, Ph.D. serves as director of mission education for Catholic Extension.