News Analysis

How one country is trying to renew the priesthood

Every priest in England and Wales has been invited to Westminster Cathedral for a Mass of Thanksgiving and for the Renewal of Priests.

With about 5,000 priests on the invitation list, it would be reasonable to assume that Cardinal Vincent Nichols and the other organisers expect the majority of them to decline.

Nevertheless, more than 1,000 priests are expected to attend the event on June 28, Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The date also marks the 450th anniversary of the founding of the English College at Douai, now in France, which prepared and dispatched a constant stream of priests to England and Wales throughout the darkest years of persecution, some dying as martyrs as they sought to keep the faith alive.

Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has described this intention of prayer for the sanctification of priests as “a crucial one”, and it is easy to understand why.

During the 20th century, the number of priests in the country rose steadily until it peaked at nearly 8,000 in 1965. Since then it has been in steady decline, with dioceses seeing some parishes either closing or clustering under one (often overworked or elderly) priest.

The number of priests is destined to decline further still because of the comparatively low rate of ordinations over the last decade, although some dioceses, such as Westminster, are faring better than others.

Yet it would be short-sighted to measure the health of the Church by numbers of ordinations to the priesthood or religious life.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, whose “house of discernment” at Shrewsbury Cathedral is full of men considering the priesthood, has remarked that the “greatest vocational crisis” in his diocese is to marriage. The Catholic laity, which has been buoyed up by two decades of mass migration, does not show itself to be particularly observant either in the numbers attending Mass on Sunday or those committing themselves to marriage.

A factor in their loss of faith must surely be the seemingly never-ending abuse crisis.

The very existence of the scandal raises an important point about the priesthood, namely that it is vital to have the right people rather than the most people.

Cardinal Nichols’s focus in celebrating a national Mass of renewal is therefore exactly right since it is about the call of existing priests to greater holiness.

All in the Church are called to holiness, of course, but it is crucial, as Bishop Egan has noted, that priests, religious and consecrated ministers, as its most visible members and those whom the outside world considers to be the most committed, manifest holiness in their lives most convincingly.

It is not enough for Catholics to continue to wring their hands, acknowledging and begging pardon for their sins. They must also confidently strive to be holy, to honour the teaching of Jesus that they be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.

One way to do this is to fall ever deeper in love with Jesus Christ. For this reason it is fitting that the Westminster event will be celebrated on the solemnity of the Sacred Heart.

It is a solemnity that Pope St John Paul II designated, in 2002, as the World Day of Prayer for Priests. In an Angelus address of that year he explained that to “celebrate the Heart of Christ is to go to the inner centre of the person of the Saviour, the centre which the Bible identifies as his Heart, the seat of love that has redeemed the world.”

It was, he said, “an inexhaustible source of eternal life” and a “pledge of hope for every man and woman”.

Benedict XVI later advised the faithful “to continue to deepen their relationship with the Heart of Jesus, in such a way as to revive their faith in the saving love of God and to welcome him every more fully into their lives”.

Given that the Jesuits have been traditionally strong in their devotion to the Sacred Heart, it is little surprise that Pope Francis in 2013 declared the Sacred Heart to be “the highest human expression of divine love”, the “real symbol” of God’s mercy, and the “source from which salvation for all humanity gushed forth”.

It is appearing increasingly difficult to live as a Christian anywhere at present, and the Church in the West is in many ways struggling to survive the pressures of secularism.

Hope of renewal lies in the Church’s purification and the key to this is holiness. This requires not the actions of committees but a deliberate act of each of the faithful to turn to God anew.

Other efforts may not be as fruitful. It is unlikely that without the conversion holiness entails there would be any pastoral programme, or synod, or reorganisation or restructuring, however well organised, that would ever result in the effective renewal of the Church.

It is to the inexhaustible source of mercy and love poured out by God through the pierced Heart of Jesus, a living heart still present in the Eucharist, that the Church must turn with renewed vigour. The priesthood is a great place to start.