Brazil has long been seen as the epicentre of the global priest shortage. The problem is particularly acute in the Amazon. In the Diocese of Xingu, for instance, 27 priests serve 700,000 faithful, meaning that in some places Masses only occur two or three times a year.
To assuage this crisis, several of Brazil’s bishops have spoken in favour of married priests. And next year the issue will come to the top of the Church’s agenda when it is discussed at the synod of bishops on the Amazon.
But there are signs that the picture is shifting. The number of priests in Brazil has increased by a tenth in just four years – from 24,600 in 2014 to 27,300 this year.
The general population has grown too – by 6.6 million over the same period – but the number of clergy is rising more sharply, changing the proportion of priests to people. In 2014, Brazilians relied on one priest for 8,130 people. Now we see one priest per 7,802.
The figures were obtained from the Centre for Social Investigation and Religious Statistics (Ceris), an agency of the bishops’ conference. Folha De Sao Paulo, the daily newspaper that broke the story, described it as a “silver wave” of ordinations, as priests are tending to be older than before. Reporter Anna Virginia Balloussier explained: “The rise in the age of priests follows a worldwide trend in society: young people are leaving important decisions, such as university and marriage, for later moments in their lives.”
The rise in priests is part of a long-term phenomenon – 13 years ago Brazil had just 16,000 priests, only a little more than half the number today. Compared to other parts of the world though, Brazil still has a scarcity of priests. (In Britain, for instance, the ratio of priests to people is about one to 1,000.) Only the Philippines faces a more dire shortage, with one priest to more than 9,000 people.
But Brazil’s vocations boom is a reason to rejoice. Given the time it takes to study for the priesthood, these new priests are Benedict XVI-era vocations. Will the trend continue in the era of Pope Francis?