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.
All this suggests that there is nothing deterministic about priestly numbers. The figures are not shaped by cultural forces entirely beyond our control. Where bishops encourage young men to consider their calling and parishes pray regularly for priests, candidates come forward. That is only half the struggle: they then need sensitive seminary staff who can guide them through the arduous seven-year journey to ordination.
Here in England and Wales, we should thank God for the priests ordained this summer. While there is absolutely no room for complacency, we should be grateful for having a better priests-to-people ratio than many countries. We should have confidence that God is at work among us and that, though we are a minority, we have reasons to be hopeful for the future.
The new marketplace
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, and a pioneer in Catholic evangelisation via the Word on Fire ministry with its sermons, podcasts, YouTube videos and the Catholicism series of DVDs. In this week’s issue (see page 22) he asks if the parish is still the best place from which to evangelise.
Until fairly recently the Church could rely on people to come to her through her network of parishes and other institutions. But we now live in an age where that no longer happens, even though we continue to invest huge energy and resources into maintaining our institutions. Bishop Barron asks: “Might it not be wiser to redirect our energies, money, and personnel outward, so that we might move into the space where the unevangelised, the fallen-away, the unaffiliated dwell? My humble suggestion is that a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelise the culture through these means would be a desideratum.”
He mentions the words of the late Cardinal George to the priests of Chicago, nine months before his death, to the effect that at the beginning of the Church there were no dioceses, no schools, no seminaries and no parishes. But there were evangelists.
Evangelisation has long been a challenge for the Catholic Church: we all believe in it but we do not really know how to do it. Bishop Barron surely has part of the answer: we need priests to go out into the modern equivalent of the market place of old and set out the Church’s stall. And the place to do this is though the media, as we now live in a media-saturated world.
This requires some training, much natural flair and a lot of courage. All three are to be found, but are we using these resources wisely? The parish once served a necessary function in the Church, and its day is certainly not done. But parish ministry needs to be supplemented by a ministry that will be heard by those who would never dream of going near a church.