By Lyle Dunne
To sustain a population of 2000 diocesan priests… you’d need around 150 men entering the seminary annually, meaning a seminary population of about 700: 3 to 4 times the current number.
It’s hard to get comprehensive data on vocations in Australia, which makes the pessimist in me wonder if bad news is being concealed.
However I’ve been looking at the “FAQ” site of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Research Office.
Here are some key statistics on vocations:
How many priests are there in Australia?
The number of priests in Australia in 2014 was 3,053 (3,073 in 2013), made up of 1,884 diocesan priests and 1,169 priests belonging to religious orders
How does this number compare with the past?
The number of priests in Australia peaked at 3,895 in 1971, and was above 3,800 from 1968 till the early 1980s. There has been a decline in numbers of around 18% between 1971 and 2007. Since 2007, the figure has dropped another 4%.
How many men are training to be priests?
In 2014, according to the Official Catholic Directory (p 792), there were 226 young men training to be priests in Australia’s diocesan seminaries (i.e. not including those training to be religious order priests). In contrast, there were 546 in 1969. By 1991, that figure had dropped to 172, and it has remained around that mark since then, although it fluctuates somewhat from year to year.
What does this tell us about the health of vocations in Australia?
To sustain a population of 2000 diocesan priests, assuming an average working life of say 40 years, you’d need about 50 ordinations a year. If seminarians study for 7 years, that would suggest 350 seminarians at any one time – if there were no drop-outs.
But according to Online Catholics the proportion of seminary entrants “surviving” to ordination fell over the second half of the 20th Century from around two-thirds to around one-third. This means you’d need around 150 men entering the seminary annually, meaning a seminary population of about 700 (assuming seminarians drop out at a steady rate, as opposed to say mainly in the early years) – 3 to 4 times the current number.
Barry Coldrey in Australia’s Flourishing Seminaries 2014 (AD2000, April 2014) argues that there’s a steady improvement. But he says that in 2013 there were 24 Diocesan ordinations – still only half the number required to sustain the current clergy numbers. It seems it’s too soon to assume the crisis is over.
Some say that even if vocations are falling, Mass attendance rates are falling even faster, leading to a reduction in clerical workload. And it’s true that in my lifetime (since the 1950s), the Catholic population has more than doubled but the number (not the proportion) attending Mass has more than halved. (A casual glance at Confession queues suggests the number of sinners has fallen even more!) But in practice it’s not that simple. There’s limited scope for parish amalgamations, especially in the country, so the number of Masses required is not proportional to the number of Catholics.
There are some reasons for cautious optimism: Barry Coldrey’s article indicates a change of attitude, as well as some signs of recovery in numbers of seminarians, with seminaries re-opening and expanding. Some Bishops are clearly managing through their actions, example and inspiration to make a difference. I was particularly impressed to read that Tasmania, which hasn’t had a Seminarian in some years as I understand, now has five.
(To be strictly accurate, there hasn’t been a seminarian for Tasmania; I know of at least one from Tasmania, being trained for another diocese.)
And, although traditional vocation numbers in Australia are too small to allow reliable projections, they seem to be continuing at a steady rate, and in general young priests and seminarians seem to be more open to the traditional liturgy – even if it’s still not safe to say so prior to ordination. It’s enormously encouraging that Tasmania now has a regular weekly mass in the Extraordinary Form, but traditional clergy are generally still stretched very thin.
I sometimes wonder if the way we think about vocations may be a problem. The talk of calls and discernment may mean there are young men waiting for a voice from above. I don’t want to return to the days where second sons of the aristocracy were pressed into holy orders, but perhaps we could encourage a less literal idea of the “call”? Maybe we could tell those young men that if they have the thought that the priesthood might be for them, then that might be the call?
Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount that prayer – specifically, exposition and the rosary – seem to make a difference, unsurprisingly. So that’s another reason to encourage and attend whenever you can.