Joe Jenkins discovers what dwindling vocations mean to the seminaries
IT IS A bitter-sweet irony that, in the week the governors of Ushaw College met to discuss how to attract men to a life of priestly celibacy, it emerged that Fr Michael O'Conner. a 35-year-old Liverpudlian who taught dogmatic theology at the Durham college, had left his post to marry his Canadian girlfriend.
"I am not despondent," Fr Jim O'Keefe, the president of Ushaw, wrote in his diocesan newspaper, referring to Fr O'Conner's departure and the fact that, for the first time in living memory, not one student from the seminary's diocese of Hexham and Newcastle has arrived for the new academic year, which begins this month.
Ambrose Griffiths, his bishop, was not impressed when journalists linked Fr 0' Conner's departure to that of Fr Patrick Morrissey, a parish priest in South Shields, who now lives with the mother of his three-yearold son. The headlines yelled crisis.
"To suggest that there is a crisis in the priesthood because two priests can't cope with celibacy is nonsense," Bishop Griffiths told me. "If you compare the number of priests being unfaithful to their commitment to celibacy with the number of married couples being unfaithful to each other, the contrast is sharp".
But these are critical times for the Church and the men who will one day lead it and celibacy is far from being the only stumbling block for the men who wish to become priests and those charged with their formation.
The first act of a new rector of one English seminary was to ban overnight guests from students' rooms. Presumably this radical move had not occurred to his predecessor, who snoozed on as young women (and men) trouped out of the seminary just as the milkman was making his rounds.
One Catholic college in England is said to be rife with drug and alcohol abuse. It is alleged that its students regu larly take ecstasy in their rooms. They only get away with it because the college authorities turn a blind eye, fearing that if the young men with enormous grins on their faces are sent down, the college may lose the generous local authority grants paid for each student.
At a Scottish seminary, one student proved that he was more than equipped for ministry in the inner city by hospitalising another, giving him what was later des
cribed by witnesses as "a good kicking".
Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that vocations in Western Europe and North America are being overtaken by those in the rest of the world. In England and Wales the number of diocesan and religious priests has fallen from 6,472 in 1986 to 5,712 in 1996. In Scotland, the number is down from 1,066 in 1988 to 913 this year. North of the border the Church maintains just one domestic seminary and the number of seminarians has more than halved in ten years. In Ire land. another seminary has closed, leaving just two. Is it any wonder that as our student priests begin the new academic year, talk of a crisis in vocations in this country is with us again?
"I don't think crisis is the right word," says Bishop Griffiths. "This hasn't happened suddenly.
"We have been more selective of those we ordain. It used to be that people went through the seminaries unless there
was something that stopped them. We now look for positive reasons why they should be ordained. We have to there axe now greater demands on the parish priest." In parts of Africa, the ratio of Catholic population to priest is 35,000 to one, which shows that the boom in men studying for the priesthood in that continent has yet to have much impact. In Hexham and Newcastle the ratio is 1,000 to one — a stable figure, as the Catholic population has decreased. But the days of two or three priests ;12 every parish are in the mar
Bishop Griffiths says that because it is perceived that it is everyone's responsibility to encourage vocations, no-one is actually doing so. To counter this, last year he appointed ten vocations co-ordinators and began a poster campaign.
"The smaller number of vocations could be put down to human frailty and the difficulty, these days, of making a commitment. Vocations depend ultimately on every single member of the Church. People get the priests they deserve."
Father Jim O'Keefe agrees. "It isn't actually the seminary's job to attract students, it's the local churches'," he says. But the instant gratification culture is a major challenge to the recruiters. "We live in a society where if you feel like a change you just do it."
The solution is not, as might be supposed, to recruit more priests from overseas: "I don't think we should have Ethiopian priests filling parishes in Liverpool." But there is perhaps a solution that is yet to be fully tapped. "We're not short of priests, we're short of ministry," Fr O'Keefe says. "We are being seriously challenged to look at collaborative ministry, shifting resources used by priests to the rest of the parish. We have the resources to cope — and to flourish."
Bishop Griffiths offers another perspective: "It may be that the Holy Spirit is taking a greater role in the Church, creating a new, richer, more mature and humbler Church."
This is no cop out. Neither priest is suggesting that we leave the church in the hands of busybodies. What they mean is that if we all play a greater part in parish life then the laity will again consider the priesthood a natural option for their offspring.
TODAY'S POTENTIAL student priest is unlikely to be a 16year-old, his mother urging him to live a life of celibacy when what he really wants is to play for Liverpool, a trophy wife and nights out boozing with Gazza. The identikit seminarian is perhaps aged 28. He has three university degrees. He became interested in the priesthood not because he was dragged by the ear to Mass but because he looked up to a particular priest in his parish, school or university.
He visits Lourdes with a group of disabled children. As an undergraduate he joins a prayer group and meets people who open his eyes to, say, human rights abuses in East Timor. He realises that his duty as a Catholic extends beyond his own horizons and that he must consider a vocation to the priesthood. He contacts his parish priest back home and arranges to see him.
He then works with a diocesan priest for a year to consider his suitability. He goes before the daunting diocesan selection advisory conference. A note is sent to his bishop. Psychological and medical tests follow. An interview with his bishop is the final step needed to enter the seminary.
If only there were more like him.
As our ageing priests retire or pass away, the Catholic family grows smaller and the distractions of secular society shriek ever more loudly, we will need them.