Where have all the priests gone?

“We are mourning the way the Church was in the past, but we are on the verge of something new.” - Fr Jimmy Bonnici, Rector of the Archbishop’s Seminary

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That’s the classical question that many children and adolescents get asked…one which is either met with determined declarations of “pilot!”, “astronaut!”, “teacher!”, or by completely blank faces.

What would be utterly out of the ordinary is to have a child declare their dream to become a “nun / priest!”.

There are currently ten candidates who are on their way to becoming diocesan priests in Malta and who are following their formation course at the Archbishop’s Seminary. Only a decade ago, there was an average of thirty.

The Journal had a frank exchange of views with Fr Jimmy Bonnici, the Rector of the Archbishop’s Seminary, about the implications of this decline on the Church and on society at large.

Not all who wear a robe are the same, but they’re all ageing

They may all be equal in the eyes of the Lord, but there’s an important difference when it comes to their role on the ground.

Diocesan priests are normally associated with a specific geographical region or diocese within the Catholic Church. They make a vow of obedience and loyalty to their local bishop and serve the needs of the people in that diocese.

Religious priests, on the other hand, belong to specific religious orders, such as the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans. They make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience within their religious order or congregation rather than to a specific diocese. They may be assigned to work anywhere their order or congregation has a presence.

It’s important to explain this distinction, since reporting on trends across priesthood in general would entail speaking to every religious order, and not just the diocesan aspect.  

What Father Jimmy could confirm across the board, however, is that around 40 per cent of priests in Malta are aged 70 or over. The youngest candidate currently on his way to becoming a diocesan priest is 20 years old, and the oldest is in his late thirties.

Is it a case of only in Malta?

Definitely not. We could quote statistics from many countries, but it would be all too repetitive: the bottom line is that the number of new priests is falling overall and quite drastically across Europe and the United States.  

There are still some interesting trends. For example, one in four ordinations of Catholic diocesan priests in Europe takes place in Poland, according to data from the Polish Institute for Catholic Church Statistics.  Der Spiegel has reported that, in Germany, approximately 10 per cent of Catholic priests – about 1,300 – are immigrants, with many hailing from India.

On the flip side, the region where Catholicism is experiencing its fastest growth is Africa, as confirmed year after year by Agenzia Fides and the Vatican itself. Vietnam and India are also experiencing a significant increase in interest in priesthood.

Fr Jimmy Bonnici

Why is this happening?

There is no straightforward answer. Here’s a synthesis of what Fr Jimmy told The Journal about his analysis on the situation in Malta.

Firstly, birth rates are affecting family dynamics and the number of young Catholics is naturally decreasing.

Secondly, as a society, we have developed a different relationship with wealth. Our standard of living has increased significantly, as have our expectations, although Fr Jimmy notes that there is a feeling of spiritual restlessness which is on the increase.

Thirdly, our relationship with faith is not as straightforward as it was years ago. It is no longer a given that young people will follow the Catholic faith, just because they are born into a Catholic family.

Lastly, the way in which we seek information has changed. People, especially young ones, are present online, and no longer depend on other people for information. People are more pluralistic in their thoughts and in their acceptance of other religions. Young people are making their own conclusions when it comes to their sense of identity, and is no longer taken for granted. Young people go through a period of experimentation in order to reach their self-identity, a process that can no longer be taken for granted.

This is why Fr Jimmy believes that there needs to be more patience and respect towards young people, until they discover what it is that they really want out of their lives.

Change is not necessarily negative

Fr Jimmy believes that these changes call for a re-think and reflection. He mentions three noticeable aspects.

The logistical aspect tops the list in terms of urgency. The organisational structure of the Church needs to change to accommodate a reality of dwindling numbers. Although Fr Jimmy believes that change is not necessarily negative, this process will bring about some painful realisations. For example, there needs to be enough people to see to the pastoral needs of the vulnerable, such as those who are experiencing illness. There are diocesan priests who are currently taking care of these areas because there aren’t enough religious priests who would normally take on such tasks in the name of their congregation. Change needs to happen to find people to take up these roles within Church and society. In fact, there are currently priests who moved from their posts as parish priests or lecturers, taking up areas normally covered by religious priests, such as hospital chaplaincy.

Then there is a less tangible dimension. Fr Jimmy explains that the online world has become a geographical space in its own merit, in which the Church must establish its own virtual presence, in a way that appeals to the young generations. If done properly, this works. In fact, one of the young men who are currently at the seminary began his search for deeper meaning online.

Another aspect worth considering is related to  communication. People require a human presence and an authentic image for connection. This is why numerous products and concepts employ influencers to persuade audiences and build a following. The Church must adjust to this need for human connection and use a language easily comprehensible to the younger generation.

Fr Jimmy sees an opportunity here, as despite the vast array of options and stimuli available to young people, they persist in their quest for truth and authenticity. Once again, it’s a matter of intelligent, credible points of reference.

The future’s strength is not in numbers

In the future, the emphasis will shift from the quantity of people entering priesthood to the quality and depth of conviction among those who choose this path. Fr Jimmy believes that an excessive fixation on numbers is potentially dangerous, because it can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with power.

He notes that “Malta’s dynamics have evolved significantly. Approximately 20 per cent of the population was not even born in Malta, and this means they may not necessarily be Catholic. As a Church, our success lies in excelling at what we do and in contributing positively to society. Our primary focus should be on effectively delivering our message without attempting to impose uniformity on everyone.”

The lay and their gifts

One of the significant changes the Church is actively pursuing in the current Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops involves the increased participation of lay individuals in the Church’s endeavours. Fr Jimmy Bonnici succinctly puts it this way: “The Church doesn’t exclusively belong to priests. Such thinking is problematic as it narrows the Church down to a single gift.”

Gifts? We ask.

He clarifies that different people possess different gifts. The Church should never limit herself to the qualities that only priests can contribute. There are numerous professionals collaborating with and working within the Church, sharing their talents, and they don’t hold the title of priest. For instance, the administrative secretary of the Curia, the Archbishop’s delegate for young people, and the head of the Caritas Foundation are all lay individuals. They excel not only due to their academic qualifications but also because of their charismatic nature.

Besides the ongoing commitment of those who teach catechism in the community, the Church also needs to appreciate those lay people – especially the young – who show the way on how to be a Christian presence in the digital continent.

“We’re currently exploring how to use the different talents of Catholics and engage them in our decision-making process. It’s this diversity that enhances the Church’s beauty and appeal,” Fr Jimmy Bonnici remarks.

Is it time for married priests?

If we recognise the inherent gifts of individuals, is it not counterproductive to confine priests to a singular role, that of the priesthood? Should they not be permitted to explore their potential in a vital part of human existence, such as married life and parenthood?

There is currently a married Orthodox priest serving at the Archbishop’s seminary. This is only one of a few examples coming from communities beyond the Roman Catholic Church. According to Fr Jimmy, the Church is actively focused on celebrating the full range of talents that priests have to offer. He is unequivocal in acknowledging that the discussion around marriage and priesthood will gain more prominence in the coming months and years.

This discourse aims not only to maximise the potential of priests as individuals but also to address the spiritual needs of communities, especially considering the diminishing number of priests.

What about women?

Fr Jimmy points out that the current Synod on synodality is is discussing the implications of the equal dignity of women and how to maximise their specific attributes. He believes that it’s high time that women have a greater presence in the work of the Catholic Church, including active participation in decision-making processes.

“One thing that we got wrong in the past is this notion that the Church is all focused on the priest. When compounded with a patriarchal mentality the priest is automatically linked to power. One of the first shifts that needs to happen is the wider participation of women,” he says.

He cautions against the risks associated with appointing women to Church positions merely as a symbolic gesture, without implementing broader changes that involve more women in the decision-making procedures.

He gives a good example of how women are contributing regularly in the formation of seminarians, such as the weekly session during which the Gospel is explained. But he acknowledges that more needs to be done so that women can give their specific contribution to enhance the vision and culture of the Seminary.

A time for hope

“The Church was built around a tragedy, and new-found enthusiasm after this tragedy,” says Fr Jimmy, referring to the fact that the birth of the Church can be traced back to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the events that followed his crucifixion and resurrection.

These events are a showcase of courage in the face of adversity. He leaves us with more food for thought: “We are currently living in a time of bereavement; we are mourning the way the Church was in the past. But we are on the verge of something new. The dynamic of death and resurrection will remain a constant theme at all times within the Catholic Church. God renews things: this is a painful time, but it is a time for hope.”


Photo credit: Cottonbro Studio

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