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‘Doing something different’ — The future of rural ministry in Spain

At the end of February, bishops, vicars and deans from the nine dioceses of the Spanish region of Castile met to delve into the challenges facing the Church in their region of the country.

The “autonomous community” of Castilla y León, where those dioceses are located, is one of the most rural regions in the country.

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The Santos Juanes Church, in Nava del Rey,Valladolid province, Spain. Credit: Nicolas Perez/wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0

For that reason, Castilla y León offers a very particular look at the increasingly challenging future of rural ministry in Spain.

Although only around 16% of the Spanish population lives in rural areas — well below the European average — more than 80% of Spanish municipalities are rural.

And being one of the countries with the greatest Catholic tradition in Europe, virtually every town has its church — even in towns which have only 20 inhabitants left.

It is not uncommon to see priests serving a region of 20 or more of those small towns, posing a growing challenge in a country where vocations are declining and the average age of priests is climbing.  

So what is the future of rural ministry in Spain?

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The numbers

The nine dioceses of the Castilla y León region have 1,505 priests, more than 5,000 catechists and 3,600 religious — with almost 1,600 cloistered nuns. But at the end of 2022, those dioceses had only 39 seminarians between them.

Bishops from the Castilla y León region of Spain met last month to discuss the future of rural ministry. Credit: Diocese of Avila.

Those numbers are typical for Spain: In 2022, the country had for the first time since records have been kept fewer than 1,000 seminarians, and fewer than 100 ordinations. The trend continued in 2023, when Spain had 956 seminarians and 79 priestly ordinations.

Twenty years ago, Spain had about 1,700 seminarians, but since then, with the exception of a few years, the numbers have moved steadily downward.

While Spanish archdioceses like Madrid and Toledo have relatively healthy vocational situations, the vast majority of Spanish dioceses have almost empty seminaries, a trend particularly notable in Castilla y León.

Further, the average age of priests in the region is 69 years old.  And in total, there are 3,761 parishes in the region—3,157 are rural. Eighty four percent of those rural parishes are in towns with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants.

On the whole. Spain is a more urbanized country than the European average. Just about 16% of the Spanish population live in rural area, while the median in the European Union is 30%. Almost 10% of Spain’s population live in municipalities with fewer than 5,000 people, and half of those live in towns smaller than 2,000.

But 82% of Spain’s municipalities are small rural towns, and rural areas occupy 84% of the countries territory. 

Those towns are getting smaller, and their populations getting older, as more young Spaniards moving to cities.  

The population of the Castilla y León region is more rural than the rest of the country, with 36% of its people living in rural areas.

The Church of Our Lady of Castille in Muriel de Zapardiel, a town of fewer than 100 people. Credit: Fundación Joaquín Díaz / Cayetano Enríquez/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

The challenges

Clerics in Castilla y León told The Pillar in recent weeks that the demographic and vocations trends of the region pose unique challenges: an aging clergy aims to provide pastoral care to small rural towns, promote vocations, and help the few young priests in the area to adapt to hard life of rural ministry.  

Father Jorge González Guadalix of the Archdiocese of Madrid, told The Pillar that he is in charge of three towns about an hour north of Madrid.

“After many years working in the city, I have been for the past six years a parish priest in three small towns, whose total population is somewhere between 300 and 400 inhabitants. I have two towns with around 100 inhabitants each, and one with 200 inhabitants,” he said.

“On weekdays, the Mass rotates between each town. And on weekdays, usually two or four people come to Mass —  sometimes none. On Sundays I go to all three towns. There could be two or three people at Sunday Mass, or sometimes 15 in one town, and in the ‘big town,’ there could be 25 or even 30.“

So what is pastoral ministry like in those small towns?

Exhausting, González Guadalix told The Pillar.  

“We have a tremendous problem of shortage of vocations,” he said.

“Maybe in Madrid it is not so noticeable because there are still many priests passing through studying, but in many regions like Castilla it is distressing. If the average age of the priest is close to 70 years, that means that there are hundreds of priests of 80 or 90 years old who are still serving their communities,” he added.

“It's very tiring, life is hard. How can priests of those ages serve 10 or 15 towns? And some younger ones serve people from as many as 40 small villages,” he said.

González Guadalix said that in his experience, the biggest challenge for priests in rural ministry is loneliness. Rural priests in Spain live in the very small towns they serve, the next priest could be more than an hour away, and the number of people who attend Mass can be counted on the fingers of one hand. 

Because of that, some Spanish dioceses have tried a new approach: forming pastoral teams of priests, based in a somewhat larger town, from which other villages are served. 

“Normally, when we say that a priest is in charge of 30 villages, it does not mean that he is alone. Very few priests in that dynamic work alone, the majority are in what we call ‘pastoral units,’ which are groups of priests and religious who are in charge of pastorally caring for these little towns,” explained Father Julio Alonso, a territorial vicar in the Archdiocese of Burgos, one of the two metropolitan archdioceses in the Castilla y León region.

“We make divisions by regions, which are slightly larger rural centers, with a few thousand inhabitants, where the pastoral team is normally established and where the ministry can be developed a little more — and from there the smaller towns are served, some of them with barely 20 or 30 inhabitants,” said Alonso.

“Now, each town has its specificity. Some see their population increase greatly in summer, or during the patron saint festivities or at Easter. Others are bedroom communities close to larger cities, where they are growing in population and have more young people and even migrants from other countries,” he added.

But in the small villages served by a priest riding a circuit, there is the danger that parish life becomes little more than the occasional celebration of the Eucharist. 

“What does a priest do in these circumstances? Well, he celebrates Mass on Sundays in the two or three places he can, and he rotates those, and for the rest he travels to the villages to attend to the dead and the patron saint festivals. Pastorally, apart from Mass and seeing the sick, not much can be done; In these towns there are no longer children, there are no longer young people,” González Guadalix added.

"It is exhausting."

Alonso agreed. And he said that priestly absence doesn’t always make hearts grow fonder.

“The problem is that many times you cannot go beyond a ‘maintenance’ pastoral care, but the feeling is prevalent that the doors of the church are always closed or that there is no contact with the priest and fewer and fewer people participate in the Church’s ministry, because there is a feeling of abandonment,” Alonso said.

When the region’s bishops met last month, they discussed especially the difficulties their younger priests seem to have with adapting to rural ministry. 

“It is normal for a young priest to find this difficult,” said González Guadalix.

“Faith is given to us as normal human beings, no matter how much supernatural vision we have, the [priestly] vocation is embodied in a specific person — and anyone becomes disillusioned and exhausted. It's hard if you get ordained with some expectations and end up serving 15 or 20 villages without young people, and the only thing these young priests do is celebrate Mass with three or four people and bury the dead,” he added.

“These days, there is a lot of talk about the Church ‘going out’ — about the periphery and the poor. Here there is a very clear periphery that must continue to be attended to, these few who remain in their towns,” he added.

“The problem is that there is a vicious circle: As there are fewer people in a village, the priest goes there less often, and as the priest goes less often, fewer people also go to church, and so on,” said González Guadalix.

“In these villages there is also a feeling of neglect, that there is little interest on the part of the authorities to assist them. And they are losing services like banks or pharmacies, so people have to travel great distances to obtain those services or medical attention,” Fr. Alonso added.

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Mass in the Church of San Pedro in Alaejos, a Spanish village of fewer than 1,000 people. Credit: Ángel Cantero/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

What to do?

At the meeting of the February bishops of Castile, Fr. José Luis Lastra, pastoral vicar of Burgos, said that “there is an awareness that something must change,” while Archbishop Luis Argüello, recently appointed president of the Spanish bishops’ conference, said that this situation “represents a new missionary opportunity.”

“The Church is called to always do the same: Announce the Word, celebrate the liturgy, witness to charity. But we are called to do all this by reading the signs of time. We cannot expect things to change if we always do the same thing. Don't say that ‘it's always been done this way.’ To have different results you have to do different things,” Argüello added.

Some in Spain have proposed that the solution to the pastoral care crisis in rural Spain is to increase the number of Sunday celebrations of the Word led by lay people or deacons, which are not presently very common in Spain.

However, when the Spanish bishops visited Rome for their 2022 ad limina visit, some raised that idea at the Dicastery for Clergy and the Congregation for Divine Worship — and the reactions in Rome were not reportedly favorable.

“You understand that popular piety in Spain is very deep-rooted and you rely on the laity. The lady who helps you with the books, another who opens the church, another who tells you if someone falls ill, the sacristan who prepares the church for any celebration. But still, the solution will never be a Sunday celebration without priests because that blurs the figure of the priest and makes people used to living the faith without priests,” González Guadalix added.

“I am more in favor of having the Eucharist once a month, or however possible than I am with promoting this,” he added.

Another proposal has been to centralize the Mass, concentrating them in regions with slightly larger populations and encouraging people to travel for liturgies. But González Guadalix said that Catholics have not warmed to that idea.

“For someone who has a city mentality, taking the car and going from one town to another is a simple thing, but in the countryside in Spain people want their Mass in their town in their church, they don't go to the next town to the Mass even if it is 4 kilometers away. They want their church, with its saints, with its altarpiece and its people. This is a great difficulty,” added Father González Guadalix.

“Added to this is that in these towns there are now many older people, making it difficult for them to move to another town for Mass, especially during the winter,” Alonso added.

According to Alonso, the difficulty of young priests adapting to rural environments comes from a demographic change.

“Historically, most vocations to the priesthood in Spain came from the rural world. Now it is the opposite, the majority come from the cities, which makes it difficult for them to adapt to the reality of the rural world,” said Fr. Alonso.

“For that reason, we never leave young priests alone serving villages; this is the importance of pastoral teams, so that they can build community and feel accompanied,” he added.

“In addition, we always want them to live in a region, where there is a slightly larger population and they can develop a more ‘normal’ ministry, because there are perhaps a few more young people and activities that can be done,” he said.

“We must also develop the idea of ​​the vocation to rural ministry as a vocation within the priestly vocation, understanding this possibility as a call from God,” added Alonso.

“So we have  for the seminarians to have pastoral experiences in the villages,” he said.

For his part, Fr. González Guadalix says he has felt a particular call to rural ministry.

“If you told me now that I am going to a city parish with 300 children in catechism, I couldn’t even imagine it,” González said with a laugh. 

“I asked of my own free will to come to these villages six years ago, I saw that I needed a more calm ministry, although perhaps this change was too calm,” he adds, laughing even more.

Father González Guadalix told The Pillar that he thinks online initiatives can be a way in which rural priests can stay excited about their apostolate.

"I have a blog on which I write every three days. On Thursdays I give catecheses on my YouTube channel, and on Fridays I do a program commenting on news from the Church. With those things, I also do apostolate, and they allow me to be in relationship with many people who write to me, who pray for me, who ask me for Mass intentions, who ask for spiritual help.”

“The idea is not simply maintaining what we have, but taking an evangelizing impulse, going beyond mere maintenance,” said Fr. Alonso. 

“And the laity must be motivated to take responsibility for the Church, too.”

For González Guadalix, a key element of successful rural life is finding a way to avoid the temptation to acedia, or isolation.

“With all this, one needs to find other ways of being present and excited because it is very easy to fall into discouragement — On a normal winter day I celebrate Mass at 6 in the afternoon, and then I am home at 7, I go into my house and that's it. There's not much to do. So there’s a very real risk of sitting down every night with a beer or watching television, and just not doing anything. You have to look for things that motivate you,” González Guadalix added.

“Rural pastoral life is tough,” the priest summarized.

“It's not for everyone. You have to make a stable spiritual life plan, so that you do not miss your daily prayer, your daily Mass. Put your eyes on God first. And evangelize with all the means available.”

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