One thing that struck me last week when I was at the priest and server training conference in Leicester was the number of prospective priests amongst the servers. Included in the twenty or so laymen who had enrolled for the purpose of learning to serve, or of improving their serving skills, there were at least four who were intending to pursue their vocation to the priesthood. Most of these had made applications to their bishops or diocesan directors of vocations, and been advised to go away for a period and gain a little experience of the world before resubmitting an application.
Thinking back over earlier training conferences, I recall that in each of the last four years there have been a significant number of young men who were quite open about their intention to pursue a priestly vocation. Some are now in seminaries, including those of the traditional societies, and others are still waiting to be accepted.
Meeting so many of these prospective priests, one cannot help but feel that in future decades, those parishes lucky enough to have a resident priest will be in good hands. This view tends to be reinforced whenever one meets current seminarians or indeed newly ordained priests. The quality seems pretty good.
The downside is that, however one looks at the statistics, the number of active priests in England and Wales is likely to continue to decline for another twenty years. The next ten years is fairly predictable as most of the priests that will be ordained in this period are already in seminary or in a process of discerning their vocation. For the situation to improve after that, there would have to be fairly major upturn in the number of vocations. There are some signs that this is already happening in a minor way.
A factor that is rarely taken into consideration when predicting the numbers of future priests is the selection process. Of course we will never know what criteria bishops use when deciding whether to select or reject a particular candidate. However, my impression is that many of the young men that I have seen taking part in LMS training conferences would not have passed the selection process a decade ago. They would have been considered over pious, too traditional, or possibly branded as insufficiently mature. Fortunately these views are changing.
So this leads me to wonder: Could it be that the shortage of priests need not have happened? Is it, at least in part, due to the rejection of many candidates who would have made excellent priests?
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