LONDON - According to a recent report from the Catholic Church in Germany, the church is threatened by decreasing new commitments for the vocation of priesthood. Parishes are expected to suffer from serious aging problems as well as a shortage of priests in next few years.
Compared to the prime of Catholic churches in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the number of new priest ordinations in German dioceses dropped by 70%, from more than 500 men per year in one single diocese to a bare total of 150 nowadays. Some dioceses even have had no new priests at all in some years.
“In some dioceses, one-third of the active priests are older than 60. You can assume that in the foreseeable future two-thirds of today's parishes will not have a priest,” Peter Birkhofer, Head of the Center for the Vocation of the Priesthood said.
Birkhofer lamented the cause of the low church attendance and inactive participation of young people. As a result, there are very few who want to commit themselves for a life-long vocation.
“Nowadays, faith has lost its bonding power, particularly among young people,” he commented.
This phenomenon has also been observed in American Catholicism. According to Catholic News Service, the religious orders - Cincinnati-based Glenmary Home Missioners and the Baltimore-based Josephite Fathers and Brothers - both experience a lack of seminarians.
Father Edward Chiffriller, the Superior General of the Josephite Fathers and Brothers, said, “The challenges of materialism and secularism make it more difficult for young people to respond to the call of the priesthood in the United States.”
In the wake of the crisis in the shortage of priests in the near future, Catholics are trying to recruit candidates suitable for priesthood from a wider source.
In both Nigeria and Kenya, overcrowded seminaries make it impossible for the church to accept all its seminarian candidates. Father Steve Pawelk, Vocations Director for Glenmary, said to the Catholic News Service, “Africans know there is a vocation need in the United States; they know they have an abundance of vocations, especially in Nigeria, less so in Kenya. So there seems to be an openness to recruitment.”
Father Chiffriller, who ministers to African-Americans commented on the strength of Africans, “In Nigeria, the family life and faith is very strong, and many of these seminarians come from large families, so it's a very different environment for the fostering of vocations.”
Nevertheless, difficulties do exist in bringing these potential priests to the States. The biggest problem is about the application of visas. After the 9/11 incidence, the visa application has become much more strict. Father Chiffriller mentioned in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service, last year there were four denied visas among the Nigerians.
Moreover, it takes time for the Africans to adjust themselves to the American culture. Father Pawelk said he has found that Nigerians and Kenyans would prefer that Glenmary set up a house of formation in their countries, but instead a year would usually be spent getting used to the United States before starting the normal period of formation.
For the German Catholics, the German Regents Conference sent two delegations to the United States to learn from the churches that are successful in recruiting large numbers of potential priests. From that they have found three strategies:
- Setting up a vocational director who is responsible for recruiting people interested in the priesthood in each diocese.
- Each candidate is thoroughly tested to determine whether he is suited for the priesthood.
- Collaboration between the dioceses should be enhanced in training the preliminary priests before they start formally.
In the view of improving priests’ living and working conditions, the church officials responsible for training priests released the issue of "Priests for the 21st Century"; and a strategy forum will be held next year to discuss it.