Europe: Priestly Ordinations in a Free Fall

August 12, 2023

The Episcopal Conference of France has published their figures for priestly ordinations: there are 88 new priests in 2023, as compared with 130 in 2021. The press release from the French bishops easily recognizes a fall which “is part of a continuous trend of falling vocations within the Church, which we have been observing for 20 years, and which many sociologists of religions have documented.”

There were about a hundred diocesan priests per year between 2000 and 2010. There are only 52 this year, to which are added 36 religious. But despite this contribution, the total figure of 88 new priests is indeed an unprecedented drop.

For the record, in 1961, the quarterly review of the National Vocations Center had already titled one of its issues: “The most serious crisis in 150 years!” Indeed, from 1951 to 1960, the number of ordinations of diocesan priests had dropped dramatically. The Church in France had gone from 1,028 to 595 ordinations per year.

In Le Figaro of June 22, Jean-Marie Guénois comments on the particularly worrying figures for this year: “If this trend is confirmed, the number of ordinations of diocesan priests would have fallen by 50% in two decades. Unheard of, even if we have to wait for confirmation of  the sustainability of such a projection. However, it is probable, the entries being more and more rare.”

“Important seminaries were recently closed in Lille and Bordeaux. It takes seven years of training to mature a vocation, with a loss rate of one out of two candidates. The diocese of Paris is even beginning to tremble: in September 2022, only four candidates presented themselves for the first year of seminary. And only 5 priests will be ordained this June 24 in the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris. There were 10 in 2022, 12 in 2021.”

And to specify: “This crisis of vocations is not only French, but European. It is also very notable in Poland but also in Italy, which is beginning to worry the Vatican. North America is not being spared, nor is South America.”

In Switzerland, the Institute of Pastoral Sociology (IPS), relayed by on June 24, also notes: “Since 1950, the number of diocesan priests domiciled in Switzerland has been reduced by half, it has decreased by one quarter since the turn of the century alone, but the differences between dioceses are notable.”

“The decline was particularly marked in the dioceses of St. Gall, Basel, Sion, and Lausanne-Geneva-Fribourg, while it was less marked in the dioceses of Chur and Lugano, especially during the last two decades. In 1950, the Swiss dioceses had 2,986 priests. They had 1,294 in 2022.

According to an estimate by the IPS, “the number of diocesan priests will decline further in all dioceses, but with significant disparities. In 2029, barely more than 900 priests should still belong to a Swiss diocese, i.e. one-third less than today. The two dioceses of Basel and St. Gall will suffer a greater than average decline, as has already been the case over the past decades, due to the significant aging of priests and the scarcity of priestly ordinations.”

This vertiginous drop in the number of ecclesiastics leads to abuses that the next synod on synodality is very likely not to sanction, and perhaps even to condone. To compensate for the lack of priests in Switzerland, they will not hesitate to call on lay people. In La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana on June 16, 2023, Luisella Scrosati notes that in the canton of Basel, it is now usual for lay people to exercise priestly functions: they preach; they preside over a liturgy of the Word which completely replaces the Mass; and they baptize and celebrate marriages.

In the face of such abuses, an association of the faithful, Vera Fides, led by journalist Davor Novakovic sent a dubium to the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, presided over by the gravedigger of the Tridentine Mass, Cardinal Arthur Roche. This dubium risks suffering the same fate as the 2016 dubia addressed by four cardinals to Pope Francis, on the exhortation Amoris laetitia which authorized communion on a case-by-case basis for divorced and civilly remarried persons. Two of the senders have since died, and the two survivors are still awaiting a Roman response.

Despite everything, the signatories of this dubium wrote to the Dicastery for Divine Worship that the abuses are not occasional, that they have become not only the rule, but an entirely institutionalized system: “Lay theologians are appointed by the bishops to the heads of parishes, which is not in conformity with canon law. This gives them the option of preaching in parishes during Mass or doing away with Mass altogether, replacing it with Liturgies of the Word.”

And it continues: “The dioceses most affected by this phenomenon are those of Basel, Chur, and St. Gall. The first has even been taken as a model by Germany’s Synodal Path, where they are currently discussing ‘requests which, in the diocese of Basel, have already been applied for ten years.’”

In Basel, lay theologians preach, baptize, and celebrate marriages, and same-sex couples are blessed, hence this implacable consequence recalled by Vera Fides: “All this has led to an immense loss of faith in this diocese, and many people have left the Church.” Almost half of the parishes in the diocese of Basel no longer have Sunday Mass, but only a Liturgy of the Word with distribution of communion.

One can ignore these realities, as La Croix did on June 30, 2023 and present the reaction of priests and faithful attached to Tradition as a rearguard fight, but these realities remain nonetheless.