Staunching the clergy haemorrhage

Catholics know that they are in dire straights with today’s shortage of clergy. What most do not realise is that the thinning of numbers in recent years is just the lead up to a haemorrhage, which will occur during the next 20 years.
Four generations

Eric Hodgens

Catholics know that they are in dire straights with today’s shortage of clergy. What most do not realise is that the thinning of numbers in recent years is just the lead up to a haemorrhage, which will occur during the next 20 years.

Four generations of students have passed through Melbourne’s seminary. The World War II Generation came in during the 1920s and 30s; the Silent Generation during the ’40s and ’50s; the Baby Boomers during the ’60s and ’70s and the Generation Xs during the ’80s and ’90s.

We need one active priest for every 4000 Catholics to provide the sort of leadership and pastoral care we are accustomed to. To get this result we need to ordain priests at a rate of one for every 100,000 Catholics each year.

From 1930 to 1975 the ordination rate was much higher than we needed. The Silent Generation ordinations were three times what we needed and Baby Boomer ordinations were 50 per cent more than we needed. The problem is that Generation X ordinations are only one-fifth of what we need. And this rate has been the case since 1975 – for 30 years. The upshot of this is that we were stockpiling priests up until the ordinations of 1975. Since then there has been a very serious drought. The ordinations went from boom to bust in the two years after 1975.

In round figures Melbourne Archdiocese has 300 priests today but 216 of them are over 55 years old – nearly three quarters of the total. All these will retire or die over the next 20 years. That’s a haemorrhage.

The situation is comparable in every diocese in Australia. Despite efforts to talk up current seminary recruitment there is no increase of real significance. The drought is already 30 years old. That lead time cannot possibly be redressed. Today we have about one active priest for every 4500 Catholics. When the haemorrhage is over, 20 years from now, we will have one for every 12,000 Catholics at best.

We need five times the ordinations we are getting. That means we need five times the seminary enrolments we are getting. Corpus Christi College should be getting 30 entries a year; Good Shepherd in Sydney needs 50 per year; Holy Spirit in Brisbane needs 23 per year. That is clearly not going to happen. What’s the answer?

Some bishops are trying to import priests from overseas. If they have more than they need over there why not come here? But worldwide we are about the best off on the priest-to-parishioner ratio. Pity the poor archbishop of Lagos, capital of Nigeria, trying to serve two million Catholics with 82 secular and 60 religious priests – 1 per 14,000. And some of them would be doing special works or retired. Brazzaville in the Congo – 1 per 10,000 at best. The capital of Honduras – 1 per 10,000 at best. We are not entitled to raid these countries for priests. They need their priests themselves. Even if we were, the numbers recruited are nowhere near enough to stop the haemorrhage.’≈°√É‚Äû’¬† It will just draw it out a little longer, make it more painful, and leave us with the problems of enculturating foreign priests. What’s the answer?

Let’s think outside the square. Saints Peter and Paul were forced to do this in the Church’s earliest days. Against opposition from their peers they renegotiated some of the most sacred Jewish laws to permit the mission to the gentiles. Here is a possible model.

Split the job. We have started. Parish secretaries already are doing much of the parish administration. Pastoral associates are coordinating the pastoral care in many parishes where they are employed. These services will expand to become the norm.

The problem is an ordained priest to celebrate Mass.

There are many guesses as to why a profession, which was oversupplied till 1975, is now in such decline. The reason lies in part in the four pre-requisites for ordination: male, celibate, full-time and life-long. These appear non-negotiable until we realise that it is no longer a life-long vocation. One third of the Baby Boomers have left priesthood for alternative careers. The departure rate of priests has been steady for 40 years.

So, what about part-time priesthood? What about weekend priests?

Let the secretaries and pastoral workers run the parishes and have a roster of ordained part-timers to celebrate whatever number of Masses is needed for the weekend. They stay in their normal career and train for sacramental leadership in a part-time course. Let someone qualified and competent do the preaching if they are not up to it.

This would entail a different model of priesthood and of parish organisation. But, we are already on track for it. Critique or condemn the idea. But, if so, propose an alternative. The problem is not going away. It is a far less radical plan than letting the Mass become an occasional rather than a weekly event.’≈°√É‚Äû’¬†On the other hand, if you want a really radical change simply leave things the way they are.

Eric Hodgens was ordained in 1960. He graduated with MA from Melbourne University Criminology Department in 1973. Since then he has documented the statistics of seminaries and clergy in Australia. For seven years he was Director of Pastoral Formation of Clergy for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. He was a member of the initial committee that set up Melbourne’s Catholic Research Office for Pastoral Planning and the inaugural Chairman of the National Organization for the Continuing Education of the Roman Catholic Clergy. He has been chairman of the Priests’ Remuneration Fund and the Priests’ Retirement Foundation. The latter role has called for extensive demographic research to project future retirement needs for priests. He is a parish priest in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

Online Catholics 12 April 2006