Be joyful! Show everyone that following Christ and practicing his Gospel fill your heart with happiness. Infect with this joy those who come near, and many people will ask why and feel the desire to share your wonderful and exciting Gospel adventure. Be brave! Those who feel loved by the Lord know full confidence in him. So did your founders and foundresses, opening new paths of service to opening new paths of service to the Kingdom of God. With the power of the Holy Spirit with you, you go through the streets of the world and show the renewing power of the Gospel which, if put into practice, also works wonders today and answers all the questions of man.— Pope Francis, Message on the Year of the Consecrated Life, November 30
Most Catholics probably missed it, but two Sundays ago, the Catholic Church began the Year of the Consecrated Life, dedicated to clergy and religious who live by sacred vows in total devotion and service to God and His Church. The ecclesiastical year comes after the more widely known Year of Faith in 2013 and Year of the Family this year.
The succession of years underscores the hierarchy of Church priorities. First, renew the faith, humanity’s relationship with God. Then bring the faith to the family, the core of human society. Only then does the Church turn to the select ranks of believers who have heeded Christ’s call to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Me.”
In his message on the Year of the Consecrated Life, Pope Francis called on the religious to show the rest of the faithful and the world the immense joy and courage of their life-choice for God.
More believers, fewer shepherds
At least, that’s the hope and prayer. Unfortunately, countless Catholics asking the question headlining this article, don’t come up with convincing answers. Thus, the number of faithful embracing the consecrated life has been falling.
As compiled by Washington’s Jesuit-run Georgetown University, the faithful nearly doubled since 1970 to an estimated 1.23 billion this year.
But priests declined to 414,313, from nearly 420,000. Diocesan priests directly ministering to the laity grew by a minuscule 3.1 percent to 279,561 in 2014.
Thus, parishes worldwide with no resident priest rose by nearly 10,000 to more than 49,000. Plus: the ratio of shepherds to sheep nearly halved from one clergyman for every 1,560 laity in 1970 to one for every 2,966 today.
Other consecrated groups suffered steeper declines over the past 44 years. Priests in religious orders fell by about 14,000 or one-tenth to fewer than 135,000. Nuns declined by nearly 300,000 to 705,529.
Religious brothers also dropped 30 percent to 55,314.
All this despite surging Catholic elementary and secondary school enrollment worldwide to 51 million this year from 28 million in 1970, plus the 135 percent jump in graduate-level seminarians to about 57,000 today.
The US showed far greater declines. Priests there fell more than a third to 38,275. Graduate-level seminarians are down to 3,631, fewer than half the 1965 number. Sisters have dropped below 50,000 from nearly 180,000 half a century ago. And parishes with no resident priest number almost 3,500 — up nearly sixfold since 1965.
(For more data and other interesting information on the Catholic Church, go to:http://cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/requestedchurchstats.html.)
Religious from Africa and Asia are filling the huge gaps in America and Christianity’s historic center Europe, where seminarians are 22 percent fewer than a decade ago. African priests are up nearly 40 percent, while Asian ones increased nearly a third. But don’t think developing nations have a surplus of frocked faithful.
In 2005, then-Imus Bishop Luis Antonio Tagle, now Cardinal and Manila Archbishop, warned that Philippine vocations were declining fast. At the time, he counted 8,700 priests in the country, one for every 15,000 lay Catholics. “That’s too much,” Tagle lamented, adding that one for every 2,000 parishioners was much preferred. That would require 25,000 more shepherds.
Serving mammon, not God
What’s behind the decline in the consecrated? In a word, mammon. As in our Lord’s admonition in Matthew 6:24: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
“From a predominantly agricultural, rural country, we are becoming more technological, scientifically advanced,” explained Bishop Tagle in his 2005 press conference. “Progress leads to a consumerist lifestyle and a growing thirst for wealth. … the role of God in our lives and the priestly function take a back stage to money.”
A 2000 paper titled “Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival” also links affluence and the lack of priests and nuns. (Read it at: http://www.baylorisr.org/wp-content/uploads/stark_vocations.pdf.)
Discounting distorted or dubious data, the report by Rodney Stark of the University of Washington and Roger Fink of Pennsylvania State University found strong correlation between rising economic indicators (per-capita GNP, per-capita power consumption, and cars per 1,000 people) and falling ratios of Catholic religious to lay faithful.
Bottom line: more materially endowed lifestyles have reduced the proportion of Catholics entering the consecrated life. Giving up all for God becomes harder as the amount and attractiveness of what one would give up goes up.
What can the Church do? We’ll save that for another column. For now, let’s make sure to follow Christ’s instruction in Luke 10:2: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”