A World of 400,000

Author: Andrea Tornielli

A World of 400,000

by Andrea Tornielli

Italy is full of people who believe in God but who don't believe in priests.1 instead don't believe in God but do believe in priests..." This was the answer given ten years ago by the actor and director, Nanni Moretti, of the film , in reply to a question as to why he had chosen to center his latest film on a priest. The episode is related in , a book recently published by two journalists working for the . What then might have seemed the anti-conformist view of an intelligent director is nowadays much more widespread. Ten years ago the figure of the priest was taken up by advertising which then used it to sell products ranging from cars to olive oil. There are priests who are opinion-leaders, regularly canvassed by the press, priests who are regular guests on television programs and sometimes even act as anchormen, priests hailed by the mass media for their social commitment, for their work against organized crime, priests who are then slammed by the same mass media when involved in some squalid sexual scandal the press never fails to emphasize.

But what is a priest at the present moment? What are his defining features? Is the crisis of the 1960s over? While the Church is puzzling over the role and training of priests, getting to the point of establishing that the problems of sexuality and of couples should be studied in the seminary (as set down in a recent document from the Congregation for Catholic Education), while various grassroots groups are insistently demanding that his role needs to be radically reviewed and the traditional rule of celibacy abolished, we have instead decided to look at the statistics.

The Trend in Ordinations

In 1978 priestly ordinations in the Catholic world numbered 5,918 (3,824 new diocesan priests and 2,094 religious), 1.42 percent of the overall total of priests. Fifteen years later in 1993, new ordinations came to 8,734 (6,313 diocesan and only 2,421 religious)

2.19 percent of the total. It was a very positive increase when one remembers that in the years prior to 1978 there had been a progressive decrease. Over a 15-year period the number of new priests had grown by 47.6 percent and until 1982 this significant growth

was exclusively owing to an increase in new diocesan priests, given that ordinations of religious continued to decline up to that year. In 1983, after a decade of continuous decline, the negative curve for priests belonging to religious orders bottomed out and there has since been a slow but progressive upswing.

But if these figures are positive, how come that many geographical areas once well- endowed with priests are suffering from an increasingly glaring lack?

A Debit Account

The numerical gains are not evident because of deaths of elderly clergy and because of priests leaving. In the last 15 years the death rate has been slowly increasing as a consequence of aging given the crisis in vocations: 6,748 in 1974 (4,388 diocesan priests and 2,360 religious, i.e. 1.62 percent), 8,020 in 1993 (5,121 diocesan and 2,899 religious, 2.01 percent). The number of defections, however, has instead noticeably decreased: the percentage of those who have decided to abandon the cloth has halved and in 1990 it was 53 percent lower than it was for 1978, even if it has

slowly begun to rise again in the last three years. The "escapees" came to 2,037 in 1978 (1,253 diocesan, 784 religious, 0.49 percent); 1,092 in 1993 (679 diocesan, 413 religious, 0.27 percent). This percentage is by now considered par for the course in calculations made by the Vatican. Another phenomenon that has recently emerged, in contrast to the overall drop in the number of defections. is the increase in the number of very young priests who take their decision in their first or second year of priesthood. The exact data are not available but the trend is worrying. This was confirmed for <30DAYS> by Crescenzio Sepe, Secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy and shows that there is something wrong in the training of young priests.

Hope for the Future

Taking into account the figures for new ordinations, for deaths and for defections, there was an overall decline in the numbers of priests throughout the world between 1978 and 1993. Fifteen years ago there were 416,329 and in 1993 404,570. But it should be said that in relative terms the decline is slowing noticeably. If the increase in the number of ordinations and the trend towards diminution in the number of defections continue the debit balance should reduce still further, not least because the injection of new priests will tend to off-set the death rate. These forecasts are backed by the present trend in priestly vocations. Older seminarians have been increasing in numbers since 1978, to the point where in 1993 they accounted for over 65.5 percent of those in 1978, increasing from 62,670 to 103,709. And since trends in vocations anticipate those in ordinations by some years, it is likely that figures for the latter will continue to increase in the future. It is true that the data are calculated for the world as a whole and that the increase is in no way homogeneous. While Europe and America are in precipitate decline, Asia Africa and Latin America are becoming the nurseries for the priests of the future.

The "Repentant" Phenomenon

The Catholic Church also has its repentants, priests who having given up the cloth so as to have families, then have second thoughts and ask to be re-admitted. The surprise is that their number is noticeably increasing. "Whereas a few years ago we used to get five or six requests a year," the Congregation for the Clergy explains, "lately they have been on the increase and now they hover between 30 and 40." The fact is all the more significant when one considers that these are the demands arriving at only one of the Vatican congregations involved. Other, and ever more requests, are being received by Propaganda Fide and the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Increasing numbers of priests, faced with the real difficulties of a married life, often idealized, are regretting their prior state. How does the Church deal with such cases? First of all, if a priest has undergone a civil marriage, he must divorce from his wife to whom he can no longer remain bound by any legal tie. Then there is the problem of children. Where they exist and where they are still minors, the Holy See prefers to wait to welcome the "penitent" priest since he still has weighty responsibilities as a father. There is no such problem for men whose children are grown-up.

This article was taken from the No. 10, 1995 issue of "30Days". To subscribe contact "30Days" at: Subscriptions Office, 28 Trinity St., Newton, NJ 07860 or call 1-800-321- 2255, Fax 201-579-5541. Subscription rate is $35.00 per year.

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN