Church reports growth in number of seminarians

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

The church worldwide has been blessed since 1978 with a surge in the number of seminarians. According to data published in L’Osservatore Romano  and the Vatican’s statistical yearbook Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, there were 63,882 diocesan and religious major seminarians when Pope John Paul II began his pontificate in 1978: by the end of 2005, that number had grown to 114,439 — an increase of 79.1 percent.

Most of the growth in the number of candidates for the priesthood took place in Africa, where seminarians more than quadrupled from 5,636 to 25,580, and in Asia, where the number nearly tripled from 11,536 to 30,066.

On Feb. 28, the 2009 edition of the pontifical yearbook was presented to Pope Benedict XVI. The yearbook confirms an increase in both the number of Catholics around the world and in the number of priests and seminarians in Africa and Asia. The yearbook documents the trends of the Catholic Church around the world in recent years. For instance, the book notes that in the past year the pope erected one archdiocese and 11 new dioceses. He also appointed 169 new bishops.

The latest statistics show that the number of priests and seminarians in the world continues to increase, but not as fast as the general Catholic population. The number of Catholics in the world increased from around 1.131 billion in 2006 to nearly 1.147 billion in 2007. Additionally, the number of priests increased over the last eight years, from 405,178 in 2000 to 408,024 in 2007, although the density of their distribution differs from continent to continent. While the number of priestly vocations is growing in Africa and Asia, in the U.S. the number remains more or less static. The yearbook says that Europe and Oceania saw a decline in their priestly ranks.

Another fact the yearbook documents is the increase in the number of seminarians, from 115,480 in 2006 to 115,919 in 2007. There are notable increases in Africa and Asia while Europe and America show a drop of 2.1 percent and one percent respectively.

Historically, applications to seminary and divinity school rise during tough times. “A significant surge in vocations to priesthood and religious life followed World War II, where our society was grounded in seriousness, the spirit of self-sacrifice and the willingness to follow a dream,” wrote Sister Mary Ann Walsh, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an e-mail.

With the recent economic downturn, many seminaries have seen a spike in vocations. According to the Feb. 7, 2009, issue of Newsweek magazine, Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, thinks enrollments will be up for 2009.  After two years of flagging enrollment, applications at a number of schools is on the rise. The Dallas Theological Seminary has seen a 10 percent increase in applications over last year, as has Yale Divinity School. At Oblate Seminary in San Antonio, Texas, the number of young men training as diocesan priests has tripled over the past five years.

Father Joseph O’Connor, director of vocation promotion for the Syracuse Diocese, said that so far, five people have requested applications to enter seminary this fall. Father O’Connor doesn’t believe that the intimidating recession is the impetus for the increasing number of seminarians. He thinks that young men enter religious life due to the encouragement of their families and their pastors. “In most cases they’ve been considering this vocation since childhood,” said Father O’Connor. “One of the steps of discernment is to consider if you are being led by the spirit of Christ or the spirit against Christ. The spirit against Christ leads us to make decisions based on fear. We should look for evidence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit of Christ — peace, love and joy — when making a decision.”

In remarks to the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy on March 16, 2009, the Holy Father observed that “as Church and as priests, we proclaim Jesus of Nazareth Lord and Christ, Crucified and Risen, Sovereign of time and of history, in the glad certainty that this truth coincides with the deepest expectations of the human heart …. The centrality of Christ brings with it the correct appreciation of the ministerial priesthood, without which there would be neither the Eucharist, nor even the mission nor the Church herself,”

Responding to his message, the Catholic University of America’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, in collaboration with the university’s national seminary Theological College, will celebrate “The Year for Priests” June 19, 2009-10. A two-day symposium entitled “Ministerial Priesthood in the Third Millennium: ‘Faithfulness of Christ, Faithfulness of Priests’” will be held on Oct. 6-7. Pope Benedict XVI declared a year for priests in an effort to encourage a deepening of the spiritual life of those called to priestly ministry.

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