The recovery in priestly vocations seems to be over. Between 1978 and 2012, after the great crisis of the 1970s following Vatican II, seminaries around the world enjoyed a season of growth. The growth was not constant, nor was it uniform across countries and continents. But the trend was clear. Numbers revealed recently by the Central Office of Statistics of the Holy See show that in the past five years, the vocations crisis has returned.
The greatest gains came under John Paul II. In 1978, the year Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, vocations worldwide totaled 63,882. In 2005, the year he died, they totaled 114,439. The numbers continued to rise during the reign of Benedict XVI: Vocations reached their modern peak in 2011, with 120,616—an increase of 6,177 since the papal transition year. After 2011, they drifted downward: to 120,051 in 2012, and 118,251 in 2013, the year of Benedict’s resignation. Thus, vocations in 2013 were down 2,365 from their height under Benedict, and up 3,812 from their height under John Paul.
In March 2013, Pope Francis emerged from the conclave as the new ruler of the Church. Data suggest that his pontificate has not accelerated the decline in vocations from their height in 2011, but has not reversed or arrested it, either. In 2015 there were 116,843 seminarians—a drop of 1,408 from 2013. If this rate of decline continues, then in a year or two vocations will be roughly where they were when John Paul died. Yet we will actually be in worse shape than we were then. As Catholics grow more numerous worldwide, the Catholics-per-priest ratio worsens. For instance, there were 2,900 Catholics per priest worldwide in 2010, and 3,091 in 2015.
The vocations downturn is particularly evident in the West, especially in European countries where secularization and religious liberalism are strongest: Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland. In countries such as Poland and continents such as Africa, where Catholicism remains more traditional, the situation is different. Vocations hold steady, and sometimes flourish.
Read more at First Things.