Monday, 7 March 2011

The priest shortage: some invidious comparisons....!

The debate on the priest shortage and attitudes is hotting up!

Both Sentire cum Ecclesia and a Priest Down Under blogs have also commented on the Wilkinson material on the priest shortage, both with rather different takes to each other and to mine.

A survey of opinions...

Fr Pearce of A Priest Down Under disputes that the problem is as bad as Wilkinson paints it - and points to the increasing number of seminarians in the Melbourne Archdiocese.  And it is true that vocations seem to be rising at last.  But the question is, are they rising quickly enough?

David Schütz of Sentire cum Ecclesia, if I'm understanding him correctly (and I'm probably not, so please do correct me David if I'm misunderstanding), is advocating that we just pray and hope without engaging our powers of reason on the subject.

And over at Eureka Street, having run Paul Collins' anti-overseas priests rant on Friday, today we have an editorial from Andrew Hamilton.  Hamilton's thesis is that yet another recent study of Australian priests', by Chris McGillion and John O'Carroll, is perhaps misleading in suggesting that many priests hold erroneous opinions as the survey questions were ambiguously worded, and really things aren't as bad as they seem on the orthodoxy front.  Well, one can hope I guess, but his argument seems to involve a lot of unnecessary dependence on subtle nuances.

So can we just pray and hope?

The Church, it seems to me, has two objectives.  The first is to get the individuals within it to heaven; the second to spread the Gospel so that there are more people within it! 

The means for both ends are grace and the working of the Holy Spirit.

But God spreads his grace in part through human agents, especially priests in the sacraments; the Holy Spirit works through us.  And for that purpose God gave us the gift of reason, to deploy to help realise his plan in union with his will.  So yes we should pray.  Yes we should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We also though, have to take up St Ignatius' maximum of working as though everything depends on us, even while knowing that everything depends on God.

And that means working (including praying) to ensure we have enough priests; working to promote orthodoxy; working to engage with the directions the Church is taking, and challenge them if needs be.

Priests to people ratios

And when it comes to the availability of priests, the problem here is recent history. 

One can debate what the ideal priest to Catholic ratio is. 

But if you want there to be enough priests to say mass, to get to know and lead their congregations, and even  more importantly, enough priests to hear the confessions of the people regularly, it probably does need to be something like that much criticised 1950s, where on average there were something like 700 catholics to a priest in dioceses across the country. 

An interesting comparison: Lincoln, Nebraska vs Hobart, Tasmania

Indeed it is a ratio that still holds in some places (such as many dioceses in Asia and Africa) and in the famously conservative dioceses of the US, such as Lincoln, Nebraska where the mass attendance rate is still around 60% each Sunday.  Lincoln has a similar number of catholics to Hobart Archdiocese, but has around 139 diocesan priests and a priest to people ration of 1:604.  Hobart had 34 priests, on last available figures, resulting in a ratio of 1:1,634.

The two dioceses have very different recent histories.  In Lincoln after Vatican II the bishops resisted many innovations, and maintained a staunchly traditional approach to the liturgy.  In Hobart, by contrast Archbishop Guildford Young proudly claimed to anticipate Vatican II by implementing the ideas of Rahner and others, and his successors followed through on this radically liberal vision.

Now of course the two dioceses are in different countries with different cultures and many other factors may have impacted as well.  Still, both countries experienced the same overall dramatic decline in vocations and mass attendance.  And in both countries the sheer size of the differences between individual dioceses in terms of both priest numbers and ratios cannot be readily explained by anything other than episcopal effectiveness and what 'strategies' or approaches were adopted within those dioceses.

Is Melbourne doing better?

A priest down under highlights the recent increase in Melbourne seminarian numbers.  Unfortunately, the priest:to people ratio in Melbourne (including religious priests), in 2004 at least, was actually even higher than Hobart's, at 1:1,765 (Catholic hierarchy site). 

And behind this ratio is the uncomfortable truth that the absolute number of priests has trended sharply downwards since 1980, from 415 to 321 in 2004.  And of course that means that there is also a demographic crunch coming as more and more of those older priests retire and/or die.

Across Australia, the story is pretty much the same.  Like Melbourne, in 1950 the priest to people ratio was generally around 1:700 or better.  But in most dioceses (the exceptions being Sydney, Perth, Parramatta, Canberra and Wagga Wagga) the number of priests has continued to fall in real terms. And even in those dioceses, the net additions haven't kept pace with population growth.

So more vocations will certainly help.  But there have to be a lot more just to counterbalance the declines in the number of priests of recent decades and get back to a ratio of priests to people that could actually sustain better mass attendance rates, compensate for likely future losses, and keep up with future population growth.


Mr Schütz disdains the idea of strategy when it comes to things to do with the Church.  But in reality the problem is not that our bishops have had no strategy, at least over the last decade, but rather that isn't working well enough (unless of course your entire agenda is congregationalist in nature, which may indeed be the case for one or more of our bishops, in which case it is working very well indeed). 

As Wilkinson points out, the strategy of many (though certainly not all) dioceses has been to recruit priests and seminarians from Africa and Asia to help make up the shortfall.  I don't have a problem with that, indeed I agree with Fr Pearce that the objections to it seem essentially racist in nature, sprinkled with a good dose of 'the last thing we need is enthusiasm and orthodoxy'. 

Others claim, with rather less success, to be focusing more actively on fostering local vocations. 

But either way, the bishops still aren't gaining nearly enough vocations to even counter the ageing of the priestly population, let alone do more, which is why many bishops are looking at options such as amalgamating more parishes and developing lay leadership models.

To turn the trend around, in my view we do need some serious effort at re-evangelization.  And many would agree with the words.

But just how to go about that - what strategies to adopt, how to deploy resources effectively for maximum results, is rather more disputed, and does actually require conscious decisions. 

The missal reform will help.  But as Michael Gilchrist of AD 2000 argues in a recent editorial, much more is needed by way of strategy.

We can and should pray on the choices to be made.  But we also have to act.


Schütz said...

I am pleased to be able to inform you, Kate, that my "strategy" is not simply "to pray". I have replied to you comments on my own post on this matter on my blog, but in short, Catechism p. 1072 gives the answer:

1072 "The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church" [SC 9]: it must be preceded by evangelization, faith, and conversion. It can then produce its fruits in the lives of the faithful: new life in the Spirit, involvement in the mission of the Church, and service to her unity.

I don't believe it is any more complicated or difficult than that.

1) Evangelise, Catechise and Convert
2) Liturgy (the powerhouse of the Church)
3) New life, mission and service
4) evangelise, catechise, and convert etc. etc.

I don't believe it is any more complicated or difficult than that.

Anthony S. Layne said...

I grew up about 100 km from Lincoln, NE, in Omaha (the Archdiocese of the province). Lincoln was indeed lucky to first have Bp. Flavin and then Bp. Bruskewitz during the craziness of the thirty years from '67 to '97. By contrast, we had a doormat named Abp. Daniel Sheehan from '69 to '93. When I moved to Texas, his replacement, Abp. Curtiss, was slowly turning things around; he has since been replaced by—I kid you not—Abp. George Lucas, who is apparently building on +Curtiss' legacy.

My point is that, the cultural differences between Hobart and Lincoln aside, all it really takes to make a difference is a bishop with a backbone and a solid, visible orthodox piety to take charge. Such leaders tend to attract other strong, pious people who can extend the effect. Sure, plans and strategies help ... but they're not as effective when the bishop is an empty cassock.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. And Anthony's comment re the bishop and his effectiveness is true. It is the core of the problem. Also, Hobart is an interesting case since you have a huge island state that is the whole diocese. It is varied in topography and especially on its west coast is a very lonely and sparse place. being a priest there would be so hard. Hobart has a bishop who is almost 75 but who is, fact, not an inspiring leader. he is a shy man, a man trained mainly in Rome as a canon lawyer. Dependable and reliable, but not an inspiring effective leader of his people. He lives alone, not with other priests. He does not do a great amount of travel in Tas and is not seen much around the state and the number of priests, c 35 is not at all what an archdiocese ought have. +Doyle has brought in priests from Sri Lanka, Nigeria who have not been effective mainly as they come from vastly differing cultures and environments. They find it very hard and TAssie culture is not that welcoming. But there is a real crisis there and the new bishop whoever he is (and probably another Melb auxiliary) will find it hard as he needs men to study and be ordained. There is now a real gap and crisis in Hobart arch. But in the end it's the bishop who needs to inspire. G Young was a man appointed too early as bishop and who had personal problems. D'Arcy was an academic who did not like Hobart and often went to Melbourne. The archdiocese needs a real spiritual boost if it is not to collapse totally. It really is on a knife edge, probably like many a diocese in western world, but NOT in Asia or Africa or South America.
- Concerned Catholic -

Anonymous said...

Some further thoughts from Hobart Archdiocese. In discussing mass attendance, I am using 2008 figures from the diocese (distributed in 2009), and which were based on a Catholic population of 87000 (2006 figure) and total average parish mass attendance of 7100 (2006 figure). In the document I am quoting, these figures were compared with 2001 figures. Using a simple comparison of the figures to gain an idea of trends (numbers of Catholics was up slightly, mass attendance was down, noticeably), I calculated that 2009 average mass attendance was @6140 people per week. I also looked at the information from the parish I attend (in Tasmania), in the National Church Life Survey, with regards to the age profile of mass attenders. If my parish was typical (and I think that it is), this would have meant regular church attenders under 50 years of age in Tasmania in 2009 would have numbered around 1500 people. I have seen nothing since to make me think that this is an unrealistic figure. I don't think that it is easy to overstate how small the Church in Tasmania is likely to be in the future.

Anonymous said...

I should say also, that in all the years I heard +Young in Hobart (a long time ago) I never heard him once mention Rahner. Guilly was an amazingly captivating preacher, probably due to his very deep and slow delivery style, but the bishop did have a galvanising way of celebrating Mass. he celebtrated with great fervour and dignity in a way I have never experienced any other priest or bishop. Only JPII would come closer. Guillford was a leader for the whole Catholic Church post vatican II and having known the man (to a certain degree) I can say he was a deeply liturgical priest who really made the sacrifice of Christ come alive for all. His Masses were long as were his sermons.
Just a tragedy his own personal life was not the best or healtheist and also made a bishop too young.
As a slight aside, here was a bishop who could have been the Ordinary for Sydney or Melbourne, but was left for decades in Hobart. Wonder why.
His diocese is really collapsing and it is tragic to see.
James (have not lived there for many many years now)

Kate said...

That's interesting James, and pretty much aligns with what my mothers says about him too.

Although her take was he was great - but then he went to Rome for Vatican II and came back 'converted', wreckovating all those beautiful churches etc...

Paul said...

As a Tasmanian catholic (for 10 years), it is interesting reading these comments. I have just been to mass at St Joseph's in Hobart and Archbishop Doyle gave his farewell speech (this is his last visitation to the St Joseph's parish). He comes across as a kindly, but shy man, and he made reference to the challenges we face in this state. I haven't really seen much realistic discussion about where we are going (as an archdiocese), however, and the proposed solutions (so far) have very little appeal for conservative or traditionalist catholics. I think that the choice of the next archbishop will be crucial - without drastic action the Church in Tasmania will wither to 1-2thousand people, thinly spread thoughout the state. Yes, there will still be schools and hospitals and counselling services, but the theological underpinnings will have all but disappeared. And the challenge of raising children in the faith seems almost impossible here.