WASHINGTON — Roman Catholic seminaries are experiencing the lowest enrollment rate in the college-level category since 1968. According to a study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, enrollment in post-college Roman Catholic seminaries dropped by 4 percent in the past year
Enrollment in the college-level category turned out to be less than 1,300 and among 3,285 American priest-candidates studying at seminaries in the current academic year, about 30 percent planned to enter religious orders while the rest were candidates of dioceses.
Rich Leonardi from New York, who is known as a “cradle Catholic” expressed his thoughts on the issue. “Conversely, places like Cincinnati and my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., have near-empty seminaries with priestly vocations perennially stuck in the single digits,” Leonardi wrote in a column, “So if Cincinnati wants more priests, it should emulate the practices of dioceses where vocations are growing. Leave the "progressive" reforms of the 1970s where they belong - in the past.”
Similar trend is happening in Britain as well. According to a news report, the number of Catholic priests in Britain is predicted to decrease by half in the next decade.
It is expected that hundreds of parish churches across the country will have to close as the number of Catholic priests continues to fall gradually starting its peak of 7,000 in the 1960s. Sadly, only 38 men entered the seven Catholic seminaries in Britain this year to train to become priests.
Professor Noel Timms, a Catholic academic, stressed the need of new method to attract priests noting the worsened recruitment crisis over the past three years.
"The Pope says you can't fiddle around with the structure or the status of priests, you just have to increase the numbers. That's ridiculous. The church will have to think about ordaining women and look at celibacy. That's not just about attracting more new priests. It is about undermining the cultic nature of the priesthood and making us more priestly," Timms said.
Although some senior church figures argue that the number of priests is still rising worldwide looking at the presence of 5,000 priests remaining the third highest ratio of priests to Catholics in the world, many are skeptical of attracting people into priesthood.
Senior figures blame on social changes and the secularization of society for taking away the desire of people to commit their lives to walk the path of priesthood.
"The human impact of all that is the difficult bit," said Rev Kieran Conry, the bishop of Arundel and Brighton. Bishop Conry said that parishes would have to eventually merge together but the church would try to do this without the loss of community or mass. "There is a sense of loss in the parishes. People are wondering whether the church is going down the drain."
Bishop Conry added: "We could ordain married men and relax the rules about celibacy and eventually ordain women but it is not clear that would have a significant impact because the Church of England is in a similar position in terms of recruitment."
Father Kevin Dring, director of the national office for vocation, admitted that the church faced "a big challenge". He said any recruitment mission had to be "backed up with something deeper."
"It would be naive to say celibacy was not a factor but it is given more emphasis than it deserves. There is so much peer pressure against young people committing to a life as a priest,” Dring noted, "There is a certain inertia experienced by all churches in this country at the moment and that is reflected in vocation. But there are vocations and there are good people in our seminaries. Quality not quantity is what we need.”
Still Dring didn’t lose hope to bring more people into priesthood. He said, “We need to work very hard. Ultimately, it is in God's hands."
Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II urged the U.S. bishops who recently have visited Vatican City to focus more on educating seminarians to ensure they are properly schooled in chastity, celibacy and church theology.
The 20 bishops from Michigan and Ohio were told to visit seminaries frequently to make sure they are producing "mature and balanced" priests -- and to follow up after they are ordained to care for their spiritual life.
"Proper formation in chastity and celibacy remains an essential component of seminary training, together with the presentation of a solid and correct theological understanding of the church and the priesthood," John Paul told the bishops.