On Saturday two men prostrated themselves on the cool flagstones of St George’s Cathedral during their priestly ordination for the Archdiocese of Southwark. A few weeks earlier, Cardinal Vincent Nichols ordained six new priests for the Archdiocese of Westminster. On the same day, the ordinariate welcomed eight new men (including its 100th priest, Fr Michael Ward, who describes the experience in this week’s Diary).
For the past 50 years at least, ordination season has been accompanied by an anxious discussion of the “vocations crisis” – an ill-defined term that we tend to accept uncritically. Why, for example, do we speak of a crisis when, thanks to the ordinariate, we have 100 more priests than we did when the group was founded in 2011?
As Professor Stephen Bullivant argued in these pages in January, we should be wary of speaking of a “shortage of priests” in England and Wales. As he pointed out, “In 1970, for every 10,000 Sunday Massgoers, there were 40 priests to serve them. But by 2014, the same number had 46 priests. In fact, Catholics in 2014 had a better priests-to-practisers ratio than at any time between 1950 (and no doubt long before) and the 1990s.”
That said, bad news is not hard to find. According to the latest official figures, there were just 25 new entrants to the priesthood in England and Wales in 2016, down from 42 in 2015. But we will have to wait until the 2017 numbers are in before we know if this is a blip or the start of a sustained downward trend.
Perhaps of greatest concern is that, between 2012 and 2016, the number of men training for the priesthood worldwide fell by nearly 4,000, to 116,160. Yet the decline is concentrated in the most secular parts of Europe and the Americas.
Just last week, the only seminary in Northern Ireland announced that it was closing after 185 years of training priests. But in Africa seminary numbers are steadily rising and in some cases – such as Uganda, Cameroon, Tanzania and Madagascar – booming. There are also success stories closer to home: the Diocese of East Anglia has 12 men studying for the priesthood, its highest number in 30 years.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection