THIS Sunday, all priests in the Leeds diocese will read their congregations a pastoral letter from the bishop, David Konstant. The subject of the letter will be the priests themselves — or rather, their dwindling numbers — for, as the bishop will point out, in ten years' time there are likely to be about a quarter fewer clerics in Leeds.
Bishop Konstant is not the first to raise the issue. In East Anglia, where there are 58 parishes and 54 priests, clergy and laity have already joined forces to tackle the problems through meetings at both parish and diocesan level. In Clifton diocese, a year-long synod which met last year was told that by 1999 only 73 out of 82 secular parishes are likely to have priests.
There is little doubt that, as the Catholic Church in England and Wales enters the last decade of the millennium, the question of declining priestly numbers is high on the agenda. Last year's UK Christian Handbook showed that no other denomination had suffered such a drop in its ministers over the last two years: the figure of 6,200 was 100 down on that of 1986.
These figures — caused in part by a fall in vocations, and in part by a drop in the number of priests coming to England and Wales from Ireland — could have a profound bearing on the future. The Catholic Church in this country has been based for centuries on parishes, and parishes have for centuries been "run" by priests. Since Vatican II laypeople have been increasingly involved in decision-making in many parishes but the responsibility for maintaining the community, for getting things done, has still tended to rest on the priest's shoulders.
Even more crucial, the drop in the number of priests has implications for the very heart of Catholicism, the Mass. Other countries and other times have had to cope with a lack of celebrants, and various ways round the problem have been found: sometimes people have travelled great distances to attend a Mass elsewhere on Sundays, sometimes they have just lapsed. Others have held substitute services of their own, and yet others have organised their own eucharist celebrations.
What will happen here is not clear: but the combination of a post Vatican II laity and the examples of Third World communities make for an interesting mix.
Compared with other countries, the Catholic Church here is extremely well-endowed with priests — only Malta has a higher ratio of priests to people. "You've got to put it into perspective," says Brian Davies, who works in the field of Third World development and has helped organise workshops here on basic Christian communities.
Along with other laypeople who are closely involved in the Church, he sees fewer priests as an opportunity for the power base to shift. "What it means is that more authority will have to be put into the hands of the laity, and priests are going to have to let go of the reins. The drop in the number of clergy can be seen in a positive light — in the years ahead, in many areas of the Church's life, laypeople are going to be offered new opportunities to take responsibility."
How prepared, though, are the priests going to be to relinquish their power and to delegate their responsibilities? In the last 20 years laypeople have, of course, taken on many new roles, but the prospect of lay-run parishes will usher in a different kind of involvement and there is no doubt that some priests arc going to feel threatened by it.
They are handicapped, in this respect, by the training they received in seminaries particularly those who were ordained before about 1970. "Many priests were trained for a particular model of priesthood and it's hard for them to cope when that model breakes down as is happening at the moment," says Fr Raphael Appleby, vicechairman of the National Conference of Priests.
Seminaries — even current ones — tend not to foster an experience of community which lends itself to the community-led church many see as the way forward. Students for the priesthood are plucked from the community and placed into quasi-monastic, virtually all
male establishments where they live for several years.
"It's very difficult during the time of formation to really appraise what's going on outside of the seminary," says Fr Jim O'Keefe, who taught at Ushaw Seminary in Durham for nine years and now works with the homeless. And very difficult for some, no doubt, to later adapt to a church in which laypeople, and especially women, are moving ever-closer to the fore.
All the same, there are signs of change in the seminaries. At Allen Hall in London it was recently decided that students should spend one year of their course out working in a parish (some might be amazed it was ever different!) and some current seminarians say the place is more open to new ideas than ever in the past. A Charter for Priestly Formation for the Church in England and Wales, recently put together by the Bishops' Committee for Ministerial Formation and currently being studied in Rome, puts a strong emphasis on pastoral work.
In the immediate future, though, the fact remains that many of the men on the front line of the next decade's changes will be hampered by an outdated training. In-service training for parish priests has always been poor and badly-funded, but its importance is likely to be increasingly realised in the years ahead.
Already there are schemes afoot: the Centre for Human Development in London runs a programme called Ministry to Priests which aims to set up a structure for further training for diocesan priests. So far 16 dioceses have taken part: many have followed it up by starting clergy support groups, study groups and retreat centres.
Hopefully, these initiatives will help prevent the kinds of difficulties currently being experienced by priests in the United States, whose spirits are apparently at an all-time low. They feel trapped, overworked, frustrated and with hardly any time for themselves, according to a report released last December by the US bishops .
Many of the more openminded are frustrated that there is no discussion of ways which could ease the clergy shortage, such as married priests or even women priests, and some priests here feel the same — Fr Michael Gaine of the Movement for the Ordination of Married Men emphasises that the declining number of priests makes the question of whether to allow married ones ever more pertinent.
There are likely to be more Anglican ministers being ordained in the Catholic Church in the future, particularly if the Church of England accepts women priests. Otherwise the future for vocations is unclear. Many feel that an enhanced role for the laity in the Church will itself lead to more candidates for the priesthood — if so such priests, having come from lay led parishes, should have a refreshingly new approach to their ministry.