Charles E. ZECH, Mary L. GAUTIER, Mark M. GRAY, Jonathon L. WIGGINS, and Thomas P. GAUNT, S.J.  Catholic Parishes of the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2017. Pp. 164.  ISBN 978-0-19-064516-8.  Reviewed by Michael J. McCALLION, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, Michigan.


This book will be of great assistance to pastors and parish staffs in their pastoral work of assessing their local parish by helping them situate their own parish in the broader context of US parishes and by summarizing mounds of data into social/ecclesial trends parish staffs should consider in their parish pastoral planning.  The last chapter alone provides a succinct summary of 5 trends and 4 impacts of those trends on parish life that parish staffs could easily review and reflect on.  The five trends are: 1) declining vocations to ordained and non-ordained religious life, 2) Catholics’ migration from the inner city to the suburbs and from the northeast and Midwest to the south and west, 3) growth in the U.S. Catholic population fueled by immigration, 4) the continued impact of Vatican II (especially the growth of lay ecclesial ministers), and 5) declining participation in sacraments (especially marriage and infant baptisms).  The four impacts of these trends are: 1) the need to reconfigure parish organizational structures, 2) increase in multicultural parishes, 3) a greater role for laity, and 4) effect on parish and diocesan finances.  Briefly discussed in this final chapter, as well, is the role and impact of technology, drawing particular attention to the fact that millennials and their children place great value on it.
This book is rich in descriptive data and insights because the authors compare data from the Notre Dame Study of Parish Life completed in the 1980s with CARA’s many research projects and the Emerging Models Projects’ research completed between the years 2010 and 2015.  Comparing parish life in these two time periods is fascinating in many ways and, again, will prove invaluable to parish staffs and parishioners as they take stock of where they are presently and where they would like to go.  As Marti Jewell noted in his “Foreword” to the book: “Please spend time with what you find here.  Live with it.  Share it with councils, staff, and committees.  Find ways to animate ‘total ministering communities’ of missionary disciples in which all are co-responsible for entering into Jesus’s mission of bringing about the kingdom of God.”  Indeed, spend time with it.

Chapter 1 is introductory while chapter two examines population growth and dispersion, ethnic and cultural change, generations and ethnicity, parish size and distribution, and parish shopping.  Chapters three through nine go into greater depth on the topics introduced in chapter two.  The chapter titles are as follows, beginning with chapter three: Changing Demographics in Pastoral Leadership; Parish Reconfiguration Strategies; Parish Administration; Catholic Parish Finances in the 21st Century; Who’s in the Pews; Cultural Diversity in Parish Life; and The View from the Pews.

It was good to read that “in-pew Catholics” still like their parishes as much today as they did in the 1980s.  Indeed, Catholics like their parishes, pastors, staff personnel, liturgies, music, and even their pastor’s homilies – although we academic types might have heard otherwise.  I am reminded of Pope Francis’ statement in Evangelii Guadium (2013), #28 on the importance of the parish: “The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and community. . . . It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a center of constant missionary outreach.”  The parish is still where the rubber meets the road as they say.  And the authors end their reflections on a similar positive note:  “But many things have not changed, including the centrality of the Eucharist to parish life, the efforts of dedicated clergy and lay people to serve God while serving their parishioners, and the attitude of parishioners who recognize that the Church, as a human organization, will make mistakes, but who remain faithful and committed nevertheless.  There are many reasons to be optimistic about the future of U.S. Catholic parish life over the next 30 years.”