Long term decline in the Catholic priesthood

As the Catholic Church’s Cardinals head into the Cistine Chapel for conclave today, the LA Times looks at a problem that’s writ large in the minds of most Irish Catholics: where are the new vocations coming from? It’s situation that’s been bubbling under for most of the late Pope’s pontificate. Out of three school friends who entered training for the priesthood in the late seventies, none are still practising priests.

Ireland produced more priests than it could use for generations, seeding the Catholic Church in other countries. The national diocesan seminary at Maynooth, 20 miles west of Dublin, has turned out more than 11,000 priests since its founding in 1795. They have been sent around the world, including to the United States, and founded major missionary societies in Africa and China.

The campus shows no signs of decline. Planted with ancient trees, flowers and expansive lawns, dominated by the soaring spire and the exquisite stained glass of its chapel, one of the largest Gothic choral chapels in the world, the college and seminary still exude permanence and serenity.

But instead of the 500 or so seminarians who would have studied here in the past, now there are but 60. And the college’s numbers have been bulked up mainly by lay students of both sexes studying theology.

Last year, 15 men were ordained as Catholic priests for the entire island, with 5.6 million people (4.2 million of them Catholic). In the Anglican-linked Church of Ireland, a fraction of the Catholic Church’s size, 19 were ordained, including several women.