THE worldwide decline in the number of priests is slowing down and ordinations are rising, according to a Vatican study published last week, but there is a continuing global decrease in the ratio of priests to Catholics.
The study, covering the eleven years since 1973, finds there were 405,959 priests in 1984, a drop of 1,964 from 1983 and more than 27,000 fewer than in 1973.
There were 8,335 ordinations to the priesthood in 1984, an increase of 123 over the previous year. The rise was outstripped by the combined number of priests who died (a steady figure of about 7,000) and who left the active ministry (1,049).
No statistical distinction is made between those who left with Church permission and those who left without it.
These figures mean that if the number of priests leaving the priesthood every year was halved the priest population would be virtually static all other factors remaining the same. The ratio of priests to other Catholics declined in 1984 to one per 2069, compared with the 1983 ratio of one per 2,032. The 1973 ratio was one per 1,586.
Ordinations have risen steadily since 1979 when the yearly total reached a low of 5,765. But the rise still falls far short of the recent record of 7,169 ordinations in 1973.
At the same time the number of priests who left the active ministry has decreased steadily from the highest figure of 3,690 in 1973, more than double the 1984 figure. And the recently published Activities of the Holy See says that an unspecified number of laicised priests are returning to the priesthood.
Asia is the only region where the priestly population has increased by over 2,000 to 28,266 during the period studied.
The constant increase in major seminarians suggests, claims the study, a continuing rise in world ordinations.