And the Seeds Continue to Grow

Author: Vittorio Formenti and Enrico Nenna

And the Seeds Continue to Grow

Vittorio Formenti and Enrico Nenna*

Data on priestly vocations throughout the world

The potential for renewal of the apostolate depends on a series of factors, the first of which is the number of vocations, or candidates to the priesthood, estimated by the number of students enrolled in the faculties of philosophy and theology in diocesan and congregational seminaries.

Looking at the annual evolution of the number of seminarians in the Catholic world, one observes an almost uninterrupted, steady increase of 57,381 over the whole period from 1978 to 2012. From an analysis of smaller areas, however, different situations emerged.

Trends in vocation from 1978 to 2012

The Americas showed a fairly steady increase in the number of candidates up to 1998, with an increase of 63.9% with respect to the initial data collected. Thereafter the number began to stabilize at roughly 35,000-36,000. Africa and Asia showed steady growth, in spite of a pronounced downward trend in more recent years. During the period under study, Africa, Asia and the Americas registered a balance of 22,092, 24,139 and 13,830 units, respectively.

The European figures in absolute terms, can be divided into three distinct periods: from 1978 to 1992, growth from 23,000 to over 30,000; subsequently, up to 1998, a period of stability of around 28,000 units; and finally, the last years show an evident decrease, down to 19,928 units in 2012. Between 1978 and 2012, a deficit of 2,974 seminarians was observed.

In Oceania, trends were more varied and the increases far lower: an increase of 294 units was registered between 1978 and 2012.

The comparison of the number of priestly vocations on the different continents, which does not take into account the diverse entities of the various groups of seminarians, is shown by relative variations. In comparison to 1978, increases higher than the worldwide figure of 91.6% were registered in 2012 in Africa with 392%, and Asia with 213%; the increase registered in the Americas (63%) and in Oceania (38%) was below the average variation, while Europe registered a downward trend of 13%. However, an analysis of the Americas by subcontinent shows different situations: a significant increase in South America (131%) and other areas of Latin America (132% for the Antilles and 164% for Central America), countered by a heavy downturn in North America (36%). An increase in the number of vocations in Southeast Asia (216%) was also noteworthy.

The above-mentioned regional statistics are emblematic of two conditions currently experienced in the Catholic world: that of Europe and North America, which, until recently, carried out mission work in the rest of the world, are now unable to supply them through an influx of new vocations; that of Africa and especially Southeast Asia, which are served by a greater number of priests in proportion to the Catholic faithful, and which expresses an important stream of new vocations.

A more analytical territorial study also conducted in Countries with a consistent number of major seminarians shows that — except for a small number of cases in which precise trends are not always noticeable — in the period of 1978-2012, in the vast majority of the areas studied there were trends similar to those seen previously; a drop followed by a steady increase, growth or decline.

North America showed by a steady decrease in vocations up to 2004 and a subsequent rise in the following years which resulted, overall, in 3,450 fewer seminarians between 1978 and 2012. However the future trend may be similar to the parabolic trend, since the two largest North American countries seem to have surmounted the lowest point: in the United States in 2004, and in Canada in 2009. It is impossible to state with certainty that the crisis has passed, given the unsteady trend in vocations following the years indicated and due to the lowest percentage increase in the average number of seminarians that was registered annually in Canada and the United States during the said period.

Central America, on the other hand, demonstrated robust growth until 1999 (183.5% compared to 1978) and a subsequent period of stability at approximately 8,300 units, i.e., roughly 700 fewer seminarians in comparison to the 1999 figure. Mexico, with the highest demographic figures on the continent, reached a maximum in 2008, subsequent stability, but with consistent adjustment and a balance of 3,973 seminarians over the entire period; similarly there was an increase in vocations in Costa Rica, while the upward trend in Guatemala was like that of the Antilles. South America presented continuous growth in vocations until 2002, then a decrease in the following years slightly less than consistent with the maximum point. Brazil,
Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela had an upward trend similar to that of the American subcontinent, while the trend in Paraguay and Peru was characterized by a decrease in vocations followed by an increase (but the minimum was reached at different times).

The steady growth noted in Africa was also seen in many of its countries. Several, in fact, demonstrated a percentage increase higher, already very high (392%), than that of the entire continent: Nigeria, where the increase was 572% was exceeded by Cameroon (751%), Madagascar (942%) and Angola, which showed the highest percentage increase in vocations (2,117%).

In Asia, the Republic of Korea registered an increase in vocations up to 1999 with a decrease in following years (with an overall percentage increase of 189.6%), but the continent's other large countries, including India, the Philippines and Indonesia, showed a steady increase in vocations for the entire period, and the overall percentage increase was significant: India (228%), the Philippines (116%) and Indonesia (291%).

In Europe all the principal countries registered a trend in vocations similar to that of the continent: first growth and then a fall. The crisis, however, began in different periods: it started in Austria in 1985, followed by Germany and Great Britain in 1987; Spain's was in 1989; the crisis began in Ireland and Portugal in 1991, then Poland in 1992, France in 1995, and lastly Italy, which entered the phase of decline in 1999. The results of the crisis estimated in 2012 were, for the principal European countries, similar for the most part to those of the entire continent: with the exception of Hungary, France and Italy, each of which showed a balance, all the others registered deficits which also reached considerable levels: Germany 1,574 units; Poland 1,230; Ireland 922; Spain 863; Great Britain 334; Austria 215; Portugal 49.

Presence of major seminarians among Catholics

Of the 120,051 seminarians worldwide, in 2012 the continents with the greatest number of priestly vocations were the Americas with 35,841 units. Asia followed with 35,476, Africa with 27,728, Europe with 19,928 and finally, Oceania with 1,078 seminarians. The ranking, however, is different when taking into account the number of Catholics on each continent. In fact, for every 100,000 Catholics there were: 26 seminarians in Asia, approximately 14 in Africa, 11 in Oceania, 7 in Europe and 6 in the Americas. The figure for the Americas is an average of the figures relative to their subcontinents: 7 for North America, 6 for Central America, 5 for the Antilles and approximately 6 for South America.

The number of seminarians per 100,000 Catholics worldwide in 2012 exceeded the 1978 figure (9.77 versus 8.36). However, the differences among the continents are noteworthy: from 1978 to 2012, the number of seminarians per 100,000 Catholics went from 10.29 to 13.96 in Africa, and from 59.49 to 26.35 in Asia; in Europe there was a decrease from 8.60 to 6.95; in Oceania from 13.96 to 11.11, and in the Americas there was a return to the 1978 level of 6.03. From 1978 to 2012, however, the ratio of the total number of seminarians to Catholics differed greatly among the various American subcontinents: in North America this ratio fell from 16.47 to 7.16 while the figure rose again on all the other subcontinents.

The presence in the Catholic world of seminarians from various countries underwent great changes during the period under study: the United States, which in 1978 ranked first with its 8,639 seminarians, followed by Italy (with 5,516 seminarians), was supplanted in 2012 by India (with 15,329 seminarians), Brazil (with 8,779), the Philippines (with 8,097), Mexico (with 6,671), Nigeria (6,352) and Italy (5,866). Poland dropped to eighth place from third, with 4,097 seminarians, overtaken not only by India, but by Brazil, the Philippines, and also Mexico and Nigeria. Similarly, Spain was overtaken by Mexico, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia and Nigeria, which, in 1978, however, it had overtaken.

The countries which in 2012 showed the highest numbers of seminarians per 100,000 Catholics were: India (77.57), Indonesia (52.24), the Republic of Korea (31.5), Nigeria (24.91), Kenya (12.88), Italy and Poland (11.06), the Philippines (10.09), Uganda (9.58), Tanzania (9.24) and Colombia (9.17).

Replacement of active priests

Short term predictions of ordinations and the replacement of active priests can be gleaned from the ratio existing between the number of major seminarians and the number of priests. The ratio used here is per 100 priests, and compares the number of seminarians to that of priests. It follows that the ratio can be read as the replacement of 100 priests by an equal number of seminarians. The replacement of active priests is thus guaranteed when this ratio is not lower than a given level. According to this estimate — of course approximate, as it does not take into account the average effective duration of the exercise of the priestly ministry or of the temporal trend of the two series of operative data in the ratio — the percentage of seminarians with respect to priests must be such as to guarantee the replacement of active priests if the assumed value is not lower than 12.5%. This threshold value is largely exceeded at the global level (28.98 seminarians per 100 priests in 2012). However there may be some growing concern with regard to Europe, with a percentage of 10.69, and to North America, whose level of 12.61% is close to the threshold replacement figure. Elsewhere the ratio is very high: 69% for Africa, roughly 40% for Central and South America, 61% for Asia and 23% for Oceania.

The path to regain balance among the continents might be possible through a process of redistribution, i.e., by transferring seminarians, once they have become priests, from Africa, South and Central America and Asia to countries in Europe and North America lacking the possibility of renewal. The answer, however, is not that simple. In fact, in precisely the areas with an increase in priestly vocations, Catholicism is expanding and thus, maintaining the current level of pastoral service does not present an appropriate hypothesis. On the contrary, in order to ensure that the 2012 level of service is maintained in these areas, the number of pastoral workers, and therefore of new priests, must increase.

Understanding the ratio between Catholics and priests should be convincing enough. It can be seen that the ratio is 4,948 in Africa, 7,008 in South America and 2,291 in Southeast Asia, versus 1,762 in North America, 1,538 in Europe and 2,054 in Oceania. Therefore, in those countries where Catholicism is expanding, what is necessary is not the replacement of active priests but an increase in their numbers. Thus, the replacement of priests needs to be studied above all for those countries with an established Catholic tradition. Here, with few exceptions, the number of vocations does not seem to have reached a high enough level to ensure the replacement of active priests. Indeed, excluding the countries in which replacement seems guaranteed, namely Albania (28.2%), Hungary (15.7%), Kosovo (19.4%), Latvia (16.6%), Poland (13.6%), Romania (29.8%), Slovakia (16.2%), Ukraine (28.7%), and the United States (13.8%), the ratio for Italy, Norway, Montenegro and Serbia was close to 12.5% in 2012. For Canada and the other principal European countries, the figure was below the replacement threshold: Canada (6.0%), Austria (6.7%), Belgium (4.3%), Czech Republic (8.0%), France (7.1%), Germany (7.5%), Slovenia (8.7%) and Spain (8.1%). Thus for this last group, it is foreseeable that, in a situation of such imbalance, difficulties could arise in the near future in the priestly framework to replace priests, necessitated by the aging factor.

*Central Office of Church Statistics

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2014, page 10

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