How to overcome the shortage of priests

How to overcome the shortage of priests

Fr Kevin Dillon PP

As in every Australian diocese, in Melbourne there are numbers of parish priests who, despite everything, remain firm as bastions of the faith. The Melbourne parish of Mitcham has been especially fortunate in its succession of strong and faithful pastors, the latest of whom is Fr Kevin Dillon. Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration is only one of a number of spiritual bonuses to be found in his Mitcham parish.

Few are better qualified to analyse the present situation regarding the diminishing numbers of priests in most Australian dioceses (including Melbourne) and the measures needed to address the problem.

Fr Dillon is Deanery Coordinator for his region of the archdiocese and was organiser of the Melbourne leg of the Pope's 1986 Australian visit. His article first appeared in the 'Maroondah Deanery Advocate'.

In 1966, Galilee won the Melbourne Cup, St Kilda won its first flag, Harold Holt became Prime Minister, and demonstrations commenced over Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Only 30 years ago. Not long ago at all. So what about the next thirty years - for the Church, and perhaps for priests in particular?

Let us look at some of the statistics and facts to get us started. How acute is the problem? And what might be a solution?

  • Today, there are 31 Diocesan Melbourne priests under 40 years of age.
  • In 30 years time (2026), they will be aged between 59 and 70.
  • Any priest over 70 who can work "to the full" should be considered a bonus.
  • In the Seminary presently, there are 14 Melbourne students, over an 8 year span of study.
  • Let us presume that ten of those 14 students will be ordained.
  • Of those currently between the ages of 29 and 40 (31 priests), and of those to be ordained in the next 8 years (10 priests), let us presume (most optimistically) that: none will die; none will have to retire through sickness; none will resign the active ministry over the next 30 years.
  • Let us presume that 150 Diocesan priests (there are currently 309 priests in 233 parishes in Melbourne) are the absolute minimum needed to sustain even the most basic pastoral and sacramental service.
  • If we have the 41 noted above (31 currently serving, and 10 to be ordained in the next 8 years), there will be a shortfall of 109.
  • These 109 must be ordained in the 22 years from 2005 to 2026. (We have already included those ordained between 1997 and 2004). This is an average of 5 per year.
  • To ordain five priests per year, we will need a seminary intake of 9-10 students each year, beginning next year.
  • The picture is no different over 20 years (i.e., 2016). There are 93 priests under 50 years. If none die, retire before 70, or resign, we will still have only 103 priests (93 plus 10 ordained by 2004), plus those to be ordained between 2005 and 2016.
  • To have 150 minimum, we will still need 47 ordinations in 12 years, an average of 4 ordinations, therefore an average seminary intake of 8, beginning next year. (The current average of ordinations anticipated is 1.25).

These statistics do not presume an optimistic picture. But we must not forget that they are simply numbers, facts. What we do with them is up to us. We can sit back and wait for the shortage of priests to take away some of the irreplaceable things we really treasure in the Church - or we can use the statistics as a springboard for effective action and do something about it.

A reader may well ask, "How did the situation become so critical?" Is it modern secularism? Have young people simply lost their faith? Maybe priesthood is just too demanding today? There's probably an element of truth in all these, and many other answers as well.

Internal difficulties

There is little doubt that the offences associated with recent court cases involving sexual abuse by priests, and the publicity accompanying them, have done enormous damage on several fronts. Many people see priesthood as being "unliveable", and any "prestige" or status it may have had in the past is long gone. Perhaps this means, at least, that those who aspire to the priesthood are not seeking honour and glory.

But the difficulties have also been internal. Many within the Church have sought (perhaps with the best of intentions, and indeed somewhat successfully) to present the priesthood as "just one of many forms of service within the Church," with nothing very special about it at all. Even the terminology has changed significantly - the priest becomes the "celebrant" and the celebrant becomes the "presider." Yet no-one ever talks about a shortage of presiders. But a priest is one who offers sacrifice, and the bare facts are that without a priest we have no Mass, and without Mass our Church has its very heart torn out.

And it is here that the core of the problem is made clear. There are some things that only a priest can do. Lots of people can sign the cheques, run the Parish Council, advise those with problems, manage the school, give pastoral care to the struggling, and so forth. But only the priest can consecrate bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Only the priest can absolve sin in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And perhaps here lies the clue. If so few are presenting themselves to be priests so as to do those things which only the priest can do, perhaps it demonstrates that - as a Church, and maybe as individuals - we have ceased to emphasise amongst ourselves that these are the things of faith which are essential and irreplaceable. The Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation are not "optional extras," and we treat them as such at our peril.

Mass attendance

Yet it is more than arguable that this is precisely what we have done. For years, we have allowed perhaps two generations to grow up in the belief that Mass attendance was not an integral part of Catholic life, and that it is quite all right to switch in or out of Mass and Sacraments and other aspects of the Church according to whatever suits at the time. "Just roll up to Mass or stay away - whatever you like" has been the policy, and it has become so ingrown that it might be difficult to turn it around. Equally, the use of Reconciliation has diminished to a mere trickle of people, with the occasional boost at Christmas and Easter.

What does all this say about the "need" for priests? In reality, this approach says, "Does it really matter that much?" Well, no, it does not - not unless you consider the Eucharist and Reconciliation to be absolute essentials to living life in the Catholic Church. But for those who see otherwise, an awareness of what has been happening can be turned towards positive action in seeking to create a climate wherein more people will consider priesthood as a possible life option.

And this will happen if, as a Catholic community, we start to emphasise the unique nature of the Mass and of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Mass cannot be replaced by a Communion service or Bible service. They may be helpful, but they are not the same as the Mass. And Sacramental Reconciliation is in a different league from a counselling service, or even the best pastoral care. All sorts of people can provide these so-called alternatives - but they are not alternatives at all. And as long as we maintain the myth that they are alternatives, the priest shortage will become even more acute.

Privileged moments

Priests also need to remind themselves of the privileged moments they share in intimacy in people's lives - in sickness and trauma, but also in joys and fulfilment. To hold a consecrated Host in front of a parishioner and hear the word "Amen" in response to "The Body of Christ", to say words of absolution over a troubled person who seeks God's forgiveness - these are extraordinary moments in any priest's life; and yet they are daily occurrences which can so easily be taken for granted.

Taking things for granted - now perhaps there lies the clue. If we want to have a Church in the 21st century which still provides Mass and Reconciliation, we will need priests in adequate numbers. We can argue and debate all day about what changes Rome might or should introduce - but our opinions will have little or no influence at all on what actually happens.

What we can change is ourselves, and our personal value of Mass and the Sacraments, Reconciliation in particular. If they are clearly the centre of our worship and spiritual life, we will be doing our bit to create a climate within which the considerably grim picture which faces our Church in the immediate future can be altered significantly for the better.

US dioceses with plentiful priestly vocations

THIS JOURNAL has reported from time to time on a number of US dioceses where priestly ordinations are plentiful, despite an opposite nationwide trend. Two of these featured in a recent Washington Times article which noted that the dioceses of Arlington, Virginia, and Peoria, Illinois, have ordained the most priests in 1996 out of all 180 US dioceses.

In Arlington, Bishop John Keating ordained 13 men, among them Paul Scalia, son of justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court, at St Thomas More Cathedral on May 18. Arlington's vocations director Fr James Could (see May 1995 AD2000) described 1996 as "not just reflective of one year; it reflects a pattern." This pattern has produced 32 priests in three years which Fr Gould attributes to prayers from the diocese's Poor Clare nuns, strong Catholic education and family programs, and Bishop Keating's own enthusiasm for vocations.

Interestingly, Arlington diocese is one of only two in the country which decided not to implement the Vatican's approval of altar girls in order to keep the focus on boys as potential candidates for the priesthood.

Bishop John Myers of Peoria, Illinois, (see last month's report), the second most successful diocese, has ordained 11 men to the priesthood this year, with 40 new priests added to Peoria since 1992. Bishop Myers is a former vocations director and has instituted outreach retreats called "Emmaus Days" for interested men ranging from early teenage to young adult.

To put these statistics into perspective, the Catholic populations of both Arlington and Peoria are about 250,000 while that of Melbourne, Australia's largest archdiocese, is around one million. To be on a par with the two US dioceses, Melbourne would need to have ordained 40-50 priests this year, rather than its annual average of 1.25 (see Fr Dillon's article on these pages).

Australian dioceses suffering from a shortage of vocations might consider sending fact-finding missions to Arlington and Peoria on the subject of priestly vocations (and closer to home, perhaps also to the diocese of Wagga Wagga).

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.