Every weekend my work takes me into a different Catholic parish. I’ve also been asked to speak to Diocesan Groups about their planning for the future. Wherever I go priests and people are discussing the imminent shortage of priests. Most Dioceses have plans for the future, and bishops are working with their teams to plan how they can combine parishes, close churches and withdraw parish priests because of the inevitable shortage of priests. I’ve heard two bishops speak with an odd cheerfulness about the future. ‘Compared to Africa and South America’ they point out, ‘we don’t have a shortage of priests. We have too many priests.’ That sounds glib, but try to convince the people of St Digbert’s that there are ‘too many priests’ when you announce that the Diocesan Five Year Plan doesn’t allow them to have a priest anymore.
The impression I get from talking to many priests and people is that our church leaders are more interested in managing decline than in mission. I wonder whether we really have to accept the inevitable shortage of priests. Our schools and hospitals are facing a shortage of trained personnel, but the people in charge are taking action to recruit more doctors, nurses and teachers and make the profession more attractive. What kind of a health or education system would we have if our leaders simply sat back and said, ‘Oh well, it looks like we are going to have a shortage in teachers and nurses and doctors. We will just have to close more hospitals and schools.’
It is even more disturbing when one hears stories about men who are discouraged or turned down for shallow reasons. Within the last year I have heard of a young man whose vocation was formed within one of the new ecclesial movements. His ordination was held up because his seminary rector ‘Didn’t have a good feeling about it.’ A parish priest told me that he was having dinner with three married Anglican priests. They all felt drawn to the Catholic Church, but felt the Catholic bishops would not be able to support them and their families. Several converts from the Anglican ministry have been put ‘on hold’ for no apparent reason or for financial reasons which could be solved if the bishop really wanted to.
A parish priest who has been active in the missions kept contacts with an African seminary rector. The African seminary is full. The seminarians and young priests are enthusiastic. They speak excellent English. The English former missionary asked his bishop to invite some of the young African priests to come and work in England. He was told the Africans would find the cultural adjustment too difficult. But the idea was that these Africans would actually be missionaries to our pagan country. Missionaries always have a difficult time adjusting to a new culture. That’s part of being a missionary. If priests from the third world were to come here it would be up to us to welcome them. They would bring great gifts from their culture and they could help establish creative links between their home dioceses and England. In another parish I met a lively Nigerian priest who is in England to study. He does supply work for some of the local parishes. I discovered that he asked the local bishop for a parish placement in order to feel more part of a parish community, but the bishop refused.
Why should we refuse priests just because they are from another country? Years ago it was a common practice to go to Ireland and recruit men to come and minister in England. It is not only the African seminaries which are full. Why not establish links with some of the Catholic Eastern European countries and encourage some of their priests to come and serve in Britain? One of the strengths of the Catholic Church is that it is universal. Why don’t we take advantage of that fact and make the Catholic Church in Britain truly multi-cultural? If foreign priests came here we would benefit from their missionary zeal, their fresh perspectives and the riches of the various cultures they bring with them.
I realise that my experiences are not a scientific study. They are only impressions from conversations at the grass roots level. I also realise that the bishops and their teams are looking forward with sincerity and good will. They know the situation better than I do, and they are planning for the future they think is going to happen. But can anyone know the future? Why plan pessimistically when you can plan optimistically? Who knows what the Holy Spirit has up his sleeve? Another parish priest who is involved in the high level planning in his diocese said they were expecting a drastic shortage in priests ten years ago, but then a good number of Anglican ministers came over. Suddenly the immediate priest shortage was solved. How do we know there is not another wave of Anglicans about to come over? Are the bishops and their teams planning for that possibility? Are they helping it to happen? Are they giving the signals that more Anglican convert clergy would be welcome?
Converts from Anglicanism and priests from Eastern Europe and the Third World will never fill the gap totally. We will always need more vocations amongst our own people. Traditionally these vocations have been fostered amongst the young. We will always need young priests, but why not make a concerted attempt to recruit more older men? There may be a good number of single men in their forties who are eligible for early retirement or who wish to ‘downshift’ from a high speed career. In my experience, you get the future you plan for. If you plan for a shortage of priests you will get a shortage of priests. Plan for an abundance of priests and work towards that goal with vision and energy, and instead of managing decline we will be managing growth.