March 2020 Editorial: Vocations Crisis, Staffing Crisis or Theological Crisis?

Vocations Crisis, Staffing Crisis or Theological Crisis?

The fall in the number of priests has begun to loom almost as large in church circles as the issue of climate change in society as a whole. In each case, the prognostications are dire, and it’s considered negligently optimistic to be anything other than gravely concerned.

As a fifty-five year old priest, I might be deemed to have a right to be concerned about the increasing work-load I can look forward to, just as my contemporaries in other walks of life are beginning to think ahead to retirement. That said, I think that some of the concern over the ‘falling number of priests’ is misdirected. I’m open to correction on this, but it seems to me that here in Ireland, we currently have more priests per head of practising population than at perhaps any time in our history.

Picture it roughly. Let’s say we currently have one third the number of priests we had in 1970 (it’s undoubtedly more than a third, but that will only serve to underline the point). As for the rate of practise among Catholics, in 1970 it was probably close to 90%, but let’s be cautious and call it 75%. Today, the most optimistic figures put the practice rate in the Republic of Ireland at around 25%, one third of the very low guesstimate for 1970 (the figure of 25% is certainly exaggerated; 10% is closer to the money). It begins to look as if the decline in clergy numbers has been less marked than the decline in the rate of practice, and that we have, after all, as many priests as ever to serve the practising Catholic population. But that is not to pour cold water on the notion that we have a staffing shortage. We most certainly have, and it’s growing in severity.

The staffing crisis is not attributable to the (broadly steady, if not improved) ratio of priests to practising Catholics. It arises from the fact that our current pastoral infrastructure was built for a vastly higher practice rate than we now have, and that we are, or seem to be, committed to staffing it just as we have always done.

That said, the numbers crisis is often framed as a sacramental matter: who, going forward, will celebrate the Eucharist? Two observations may be in order here. First, there are more than enough priests at present to celebrate the Eucharist for those who attend, though not enough to continue celebrating it in all the locations where it is currently celebrated. Second, we should be careful not to fall into ‘sacramental minimalism,’ whereby the life of the church is virtually reduced to the sacraments, rather than the sacraments being an expression of the life of the church.

It’s interesting that in the Acts of the Apostles (2:44-47), the first ‘summary’ of the infant church’s progress lists faith, community, the sharing of resources, care for the poor, and prayer in common, before there is any mention of the breaking of bread. The Eucharist is, as Lumen Gentium 11 has taught us, the source and summit, fons et culmen, of the Christian life (cf. CCC 1324). In other words, the Eucharist is located in the context of the whole gamut of activities that Christians are engaged in and are called to transform by their faith.

A too-narrow focus on the celebration of the Eucharist, rather than emphasising the role of the priest, actually runs the risk of impoverishing it. We should bear in mind what St John Paul writes in Pastores Dabo Vobis 15: ‘priests exist and act in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to build up the Church in the name and person of Christ the Head and Shepherd.’

Authentic renewal is premised on a renewed proclamation of the Word, rather than on maintaining the number of churches and Masses. This does not by any stretch downplay the centrality of the Eucharist in our church, our parishes, our lives as Catholics. What it does is broaden our reflections, so that we are asking just what the Eucharist is the centre of. And rather than focusing on infrastructural matters in a way that risks turning our remaining priests into plant managers or sacramental outriders, we need to be asking the most fundamental question: How we can best proclaim the Word afresh to this generation? That, after all, is what will generate vocations of every kind.

Fr Chris Hayden