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Is there a global vocations crisis? A look at the numbers

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Six men have been ordained priests in the Archdiocese of Bombay, India, December 2020. Credit: Archdiocese of Bombay.

While ordinations to the diocesan priesthood are on the rise in some parts of the world, they are also falling rapidly in some traditionally Catholic countries.

And while a “vocations crisis” might be discussed most often in the United States, where more than a third of diocesan priests are currently retired, the global picture of diocesan priestly ordinations indicates changing trends and dynamics. in the Catholic Church.

The number of priests around the world is holding steady, but the Catholic population is growing – suggesting a need for more priests even in some of the most dynamic parts of the world.

The pillar look at the numbers.

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The big picture

Since 1970, the Vatican has compiled an annual manual of Church statistics that tracks ordinations to the diocesan priesthood.

The highest number of ordinations to the diocesan priesthood in the worldwide Church since 1970 occurred in the decade between 2000 and 2010, when the Church ordained approximately 6,800 men per year as diocesan priests.

Over the past 49 years, the regional distribution of diocesan priestly ordinations has changed dramatically. In 1970, Europe had 55% of all Church ordinations. By 2019, the absolute number of men ordained in Europe had fallen by almost 50% and Europeans made up only 23% of all ordinations, outnumbered by Africans who made up 28%.

The number of ordained diocesan priests in North America dropped by 50% between 1970 and 2000, but has leveled off since.

In Central and South America, as well as in Asia, the number of diocesan priestly ordinations increased dramatically from 1970 to 2010, but has since begun to decline.

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The Church in Europe

Within Europe in particular, there are large variations between countries.

Italy experienced a 50% drop in diocesan priestly ordinations from 1970 to 1980, some increases in the 1990s, and then a further period of decline.

Poland experienced a rapid increase in diocesan ordinations during the 1970s and 1980s, peaking around 1990 as the country was breaking free from communism.

But the number of diocesan priestly ordinations in Poland has decreased over the past 30 years. In 2019, there were 298 men ordained priests, less than half of the 741 ordained in 1990.

In 1970, France and Germany each had nearly 300 men ordained as diocesan priests.

Since then, ordinations in both countries have declined, although Germany saw an increase in ordinations during the last years of communist rule, culminating in 1989 and 1990 when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany been reunited.

In 2019, France ordained 94 new diocesan priests, while Germany ordained 55.

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Americas

The United States has experienced a different pattern of ordinations than the Catholic Church has experienced in Central and South American countries.

Diocesan priestly ordinations in the United States declined nearly 50% from 1970 to 1990, but have averaged 428 per year since then, despite some year-to-year variation.

In Mexico, the number of diocesan priestly ordinations peaked between 1995 and 2005. While the number of diocesan priests ordained each year has declined since that peak, it is still well above the 1970 level.

The annual number of diocesan priestly ordinations in Brazil increased steadily from 1970 to 2010, but has since declined and is now at the level last seen in 1995.

Although Mexico and Brazil have seen more ordained diocesan priests in recent years than in the 1970s, the number of Catholics in these countries has grown at an even faster rate, presenting a looming crisis to provide ministry to all. Catholics of these nations.

In 2019, Brazil had over 11,000 Catholics for every diocesan priest and Mexico had over 8,000.

By comparison, the United States has less than 3,000 Catholics per diocesan priest. This number will increase in the years to come, as American priestly ordinations will decline for several decades before leveling off, based on the current rate of vocations.

Asia and Africa

Asia and Africa have seen some of the most dramatic increases in priestly vocations since the 1970s.

With 1.38 billion people, India has the second largest population in the world and will likely overtake China in the next few years.

But India’s Catholic population of 22.5 million – split between the Latin Catholic Church and two others I am Catholic Churches – is less than the number of Catholics in the United States or even in Germany.

India has produced a growing number of priestly vocations for most of the past 50 years, peaking in 2010 with 553 male ordained Latin Catholic diocesan priests – more ordinations that year than the United States, which has three times more baptized Catholics.

In 2019, India and the United States both ordained 415 men to the diocesan priesthood.

The Philippines has a smaller population but is a predominantly Catholic country. Its trend in ordinations is similar to that of Mexico, increasing from 1970 to 1995 but decreasing since that peak.

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Nigeria is the star of the vocations boom in Africa. With 31.5 million Catholics in 2019 (less than half the number in the United States), Nigeria has steadily increased the number of vocations since 1970, and in 2019 just five fewer men were ordained priests than in the United States, despite differences in Catholic population.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has a population that is just over 50% Catholic, giving it more Catholics overall than Nigeria. But the number of priestly vocations in the country is less.

From 1970 to 2010, the number of priestly ordinations increased more than eight times in the DRC, to reach 216.

But the number for 2019 was somewhat lower, at 133.

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Throwing nets

Of course, this analysis focuses on diocesan priests, who consistently form the majority of priests ministering in parishes around the world.

But to examine the impact of vocations on the total number of diocesan Catholic priests, one must compare the number of ordinations to the number of deceased or laicized priests.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the net change of priests was negative, due to the large number of priests seeking to laicize in the 1970s and a dramatic decrease in the number of ordinations in Europe and North America in the years following Vatican II.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the net change in the number of priests turned positive, with the number of laicizations decreasing and the number of ordinations in Africa and Asia increasing.

But in recent years the net change in the number of priests has become neutral, due to a slowdown in diocesan priestly ordinations in the developing world and the death of ordained priests in the 1960s and early 1970s. .

But while the number of diocesan priests remains broadly stable, the number of Catholics around the world continues to grow.

Europe and North America experience a net decrease in the number of diocesan priests each year, while countries in many parts of the developing world see a positive net change each year.

Europe’s numbers are driven by countries with traditionally large Catholic populations, which have suffered from increasing secularization.

Germany is a key example of this trend: 321 German priests died in 2019 and 14 were laicized, while only 55 were ordained. For every six diocesan priests lost, only one new diocesan priest was ordained.

Italy and Poland had a relatively high number of diocesan priestly vocations even after Vatican II. But both countries have experienced a negative evolution in the number of diocesan priests in recent years; the number of priestly ordinations slowed and the post-war generation of priests began to die off.

The United States has seen net negative changes in the number of diocesan priests every year since 1970. But a steady number of ordinations over the past 30 years suggests that the number of diocesan priests in the United States may be leveling off in the years to come, if trends continue.

In countries like Brazil and India – where the number of diocesan priestly ordinations in recent years has been much higher than 50 years ago – the net change in the number of priests remains positive, but the number of ordinations has declined somewhat in recent years.

And in countries like Nigeria where the number of diocesan priestly ordinations per year is steadily increasing, the annual net change of diocesan priests continues to increase.

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The figures and graphs are interesting in themselves.

But for diocesan bishops around the world, they can serve as a barometer of the health of their dioceses – diocesan priestly vocations often indicate a healthy church culture in families and parishes. Of course, there are exceptions to this generalization.

But as bishops and ordinary Catholics ponder the future of the Church, trends in diocesan priestly ordinations are an important piece of the puzzle.