Fr Eric Hodgens, now a retired priest in the Melbourne Archdiocese, has become one of the foremost authorities in Australia in analysing over a long period of time the trend in priestly vocations and the looming crisis facing the institution in providing pastoral leaders at the parish level. In this new article he submitted to Catholica yesterday, in possibly his most graphic explanation of the looming problem, Fr Hodgens spells out the harsh realities facing the bishops and all of us in Australia.
The Priestly Drought now 40 Years On...
According to a February report by catholicnewsagency.com, based in Denver, USA: New South Wales' Sydney seminary entries for 2010 have noticeably increased. This was also reported in the Australian press and on Cathnews.com
The harsh reality is this is NOT true. Further, there has been no increase for the last 40 years.
This year's enrolment of students into Australia's Catholic seminaries continues the drought of priests which began 40 years ago in 1970. Sydney enrolled 60 a year in the early sixties; down to 8 in 1990. Melbourne enrolled 35 a year through the sixties; down to 9 in 1990. 1970 was the tipping point. Result: a 40 year drought. Since 1970 both have been enrolling only a third of the number needed. The same rates apply to Queensland.
The effect of this drought has already hit with bishops scrambling to grab any priest they can from overseas. But the situation will get a lot worse. The pre-1970 enrolments were high enough to produce an abundant stockpile of ordained priests who are still working. These older men are the mainstay of a rate of one priest per 5000 Catholics. But they are in their 60s and 70s. When they are all off the scene over the next ten years the effect of the 40 year drought will fully hit. The rate will then be one priest for 12,000 at best.
Foreign priests are not the answer. If we get them from Africa or the Philippines we are raiding places with a greater shortage than we have. They do not know the local church culture. Generally, they are difficult to understand. Finally they, too, are in short supply.
Who is to Blame?
Nobody is to blame for the enrolment drop off. All the helping professions are struggling to get recruits. Nurses, social workers, GPs and ministers of other religions are all in short supply. These professions have lost much of their former social status. They have become just other jobs competing in an array of vastly interesting, challenging and better remunerated professions. Add the priestly pre-conditions of male, full-time, life-long and celibate and your catchment is even further restricted.
Handling the Crisis...
Despite the shortage of priests many parishes are doing very well providing good service, good pastoral care, good schooling and good liturgy. The parishes doing best have lay leaders in key roles with the priest delegating and co-ordinating. This sort of priest has reverted to being a presbyter — conducting an orchestra made up of lay people — some full-time, some volunteer.
No Increase in Sight...
For the last ten years the Sydney seminary entries have ranged between 7 and 10. Ten entries were reported for this year: no increase. New South Wales needs 40 entries every year to provide normal priestly numbers. They need at least 14 ordinations every year instead of the current average of 5. And since the rate has been steady for 40 years it is unreasonable to expect it to treble in the near future.
Talking up the numbers violates the truth and hinders planning an alternative strategy.
Eric Hodgens 20/03/10
What are your thoughts on this commentary?