It seems like the first instinct of the news media when it comes to the Church's response to a shortage of priests is to end the rule enforcing celibacy. But that is not what the Church has been doing. So, what has she done (as a whole) to address the fact that an aging population of priests is not being replaced at the rate that the Church is growing?
The comments by Pope Francis about allowing older married men to be ordained and serve in isolated areas is interesting, although I don't think this will happen any time soon, and certainly not in the numbers needed if 25 per cent of churches do not have a resident priest.
What I have observed being reported is that dioceses around the world are addressing the shortage of priests as best they can, by merging parishes. This seems to have been made possible because fewer Catholics are attending mass at the same time as there are fewer priests1. Another thing I have noticed in a limited way is the employment of lay ministers to assist the priests.
1The RCC is growing in sub-Saharan Africa. Gross numbers are steady in US, balancing leavers with Latin immigrants, but with falling attendances at mass, which is what we are talking about. Numbers are falling in Europe because of a move away from religion, and also in South America, where significant numbers are converting to evangelical denominations.
In my diocese, the bishop has done several things: he merged some (smaller) parishes, he assigned some others to monks from religious orders (which are not part of diocesean clergy, but are priests too) and he made a deal with some other diocese in Africa or India. Those dioceses send some young priests here to serve in our dioceps for some years, and our diocese allow them to study Italian and theology in or schools. After some years (usually, when they completed their studies) those priests can return to their homelands (where they will be very educated for their country standard, and maybe receive some important role) or choose to stay in here in Italy
One of the things some bishops are doing is increasing the number of permanent deacons in their dioceses. In my diocese, the archbishop has increased the number of permanent deacons in the archdiocese. Many of these permanent deacons will be working in federal institutions of correction (prisons) and thus easing the burden of the workload for priests to work more exclusively in parishes. Nevertheless, priests will visit prisons, but will do it less frequently. Some of the other permanent deacons will be assigned to hospitals or other facilities to ease the workload of priests.
Some diocese are also permitting the Sunday obligation of attending Mass to be transferred to another day of the week in more isolated areas in order to make it possible to have a priest travel to them and say Mass for parishes in more isolated locations.
Eucharistic Ministers have their particular area of aiding the parish priest, such as taking communion to the sick in hospital or at home and informing the pastor if a particular soul desires to go to confession, so that the parish priest may fulfill his parishioner's desire.
It can arise that the number of priests is so few that a diocesan bishop may even have recourse to Rome to have some Pastoral Administrators established in order to fulfill the Sunday obligations for the faithful. This naturally involves reading the gospel during a communion service by lay ministers (outside of Mass). The Diocese of Whitehorse, Yukon has between 4-8 priests at any one time and has several Pastoral Administrators working in the diocese.
Many dioceses have opted to institute what is now termed as lay ministers at various levels of “lay ministry”.
More information may be gleaned in the following post: