The recovery in priestly vocations seems to be over. Between 1978 and 2012, after the great crisis of the 1970s following Vatican II, seminaries around the world enjoyed a season of growth. The growth was not constant, nor was it uniform across countries and continents. But the trend was clear. Numbers revealed recently by the Central Office of Statistics of the Holy See show that in the past five years, the vocations crisis has returned.
The greatest gains came under John Paul II. In 1978, the year Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, vocations worldwide totaled 63,882. In 2005, the year he died, they totaled 114,439. The numbers continued to rise during the reign of Benedict XVI: Vocations reached their modern peak in 2011, with 120,616—an increase of 6,177 since the papal transition year. After 2011, they drifted downward: to 120,051 in 2012, and 118,251 in 2013, the year of Benedict’s resignation. Thus, vocations in 2013 were down 2,365 from their height under Benedict, and up 3,812 from their height under John Paul.
In March 2013, Pope Francis emerged from the conclave as the new ruler of the Church. Data suggest that his pontificate has not accelerated the decline in vocations from their height in 2011, but has not reversed or arrested it, either. In 2015 there were 116,843 seminarians—a drop of 1,408 from 2013. If this rate of decline continues, then in a year or two vocations will be roughly where they were when John Paul died. Yet we will actually be in worse shape than we were then. As Catholics grow more numerous worldwide, the Catholics-per-priest ratio worsens. For instance, there were 2,900 Catholics per priest worldwide in 2010, and 3,091 in 2015.
The vocations downturn is particularly evident in the West, especially in European countries where secularization and religious liberalism are strongest: Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland. In countries such as Poland and continents such as Africa, where Catholicism remains more traditional, the situation is different. Vocations hold steady, and sometimes flourish.
A few examples will serve to illustrate. In the diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal atmosphere prevailed until 2003—a year that had six seminarians. Robert Morlino became bishop that year, and his efforts brought the number of seminarians to 36 in 2015. Following the advice of Robert Cardinal Sarah, Bishop Morlino recently suggested that the faithful should receive the Eucharist on the tongue and while kneeling. A similar situation may be found in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Bishop James D. Conley has explained to the Catholic World Report that, in his opinion, the growth of vocations in his diocese had its root in fidelity to the traditional teachings of the Church.
In western Europe, the landscape is totally different. In Germany, vocations have become practically nonexistent. In 2016, there was just one new seminarian in Munich, the historic capital city of German Catholicism. In Belgium, the situation is perhaps still worse. In 2016, there was not a single new Francophone seminarian in the country. The heroic André-Joseph Léonard, archbishop of Brussels from 2010 to 2015, had given life to a new association, the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. In a period of three years, the Fraternity had assembled twenty-one seminarians and six priests. The current archbishop of Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, was appointed a cardinal immediately upon his installation—an honor denied to Léonard. De Kesel quickly dissolved the Fraternity. The official reason was formal and flimsy; the real one was substantial. The Fraternity was not liberal enough; it respected tradition.
Brussels is not an isolated case. A few years ago, the bishop of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, was removed without a clear explanation. Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano belonged to Opus Dei, and he was not popular among his brother bishops in the region, who were mainly progressives. His seminary was full of young people, while neighboring dioceses lacked vocations. Livieres Plano happened to be in Rome when news of his dismissal reached him. He tried to gain an audience with the pope. He never got it. He went away, and less than two years later he died of cancer.
It seems that Rome keeps a particularly piercing eye on religious orders that revere tradition, and that happen to enjoy many priestly vocations. The eye belongs to two persons: João Cardinal Braz de Aviz, a Brazilian sympathizer of Liberation Theology; and Archbishop José Rodríguez Carballo, a Spanish Franciscan. The former is the prefect for the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; the latter is its secretary.
There is the case of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate (FFI). A relatively new order, rich in vocations both in Europe and in Africa, the FFI was inspired by St. Maximilian Kolbe and approved by John Paul II. Four years ago, it was put under the authority of a Vatican commissioner, and nobody knows when this arrangement will end. The founder of FFI, Fr. Stefano Manelli, has been segregated from his order, in order to limit his influence. The only known accusation against him and his followers is that of “Lefebvrist drift.” One of the problems seems to be FFI’s love for Church tradition, and for the old form of the Mass. Vocations of both sexes to FFI dropped after this intervention by the Vatican.
There is the similar case of the Family of the Incarnate Word. This religious order, begun in Argentina in the 1980s, has more than one thousand members in twenty-six countries on five continents, including in regions where nobody else is willing to go. The Family has roughly 800 seminarians. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then archbishop of Buenos Aires and president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, did not care for the Family. He made reference to it, while addressing the bishops: “In Latin America we happen to find in small groups, and in some of the new religious orders, an exaggerated drift to doctrinal or disciplinary security.” At one time, he blocked the ordination of the Family’s priests for three years. The founder, again, is more or less segregated from his order.
There is also the impending apostolic visitation of the Heralds of the Gospel. (The visitation will be undertaken by a three-person commission: a bishop, a canon lawyer, and a nun.) The Heralds are an association of pontifical right, begun in Brazil in the last years of the twentieth century, from a highly traditionalist order known as Tradition, Family, and Property. The Heralds have many priests, many seminarians, and great vitality. The reasons for the apostolic visitation are far from clear.
In June, Vatican Insider, a platform closely associated with Pope Francis’s Vatican, published a report on the Heralds. The author, Andrea Tornielli, claims that the Heralds believe in an “occult doctrine supported by the devil,” involving worship of their founder and unconventional exorcism rituals. According to Tornielli, this revelation proves that the upcoming visitation is not part of a “witch hunt against those more traditional and conservative associations”—that, on the contrary, the Vatican has “more than solid reasons” for the visitation. It seems likely that the Vatican anticipated criticism of this investigation and sought to silence it.
The prefect of the Congregation for Religious is Brazilian, like the Heralds, and he has said that the new Church movements must be kept under surveillance, since the founders sometimes seem unable to handle so many vocations—and so much money. What does the pope think? One episode may shed some light. The pope received 140 superiors of religious orders in the Vatican last September. He said to them: “When they tell me that there is a congregation that enjoys so many vocations, I am worried, I admit. The Holy Spirit does not work with the success method. He has other ways. … Some of [the seminarians] are Pelagians. They want to come back to the ascesis, they make penance, they seem soldiers, ready to fight for the faith and the good morals. … Then some scandal of the founder or foundress comes to light.”
No one can doubt the need to root out aberrations in new, growing orders, which today tend to be traditional. But one wonders why similar attention is not brought to the great established orders, which are now shrinking. Compare the light treatment of the progressive nuns in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious with the heavy discipline imposed on the traditional priests in the FFI, and it is hard not to notice a double standard. Meanwhile, a weakened Church finds its vocations once again in decline.
Marco Tosatti is a Vaticanist who writes from Rome.