Laborers for the Harvest

Promising vocations news from Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

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 (the Secretariat of State’s Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae), there were 63,882 diocesan and religious major seminarians when John Paul II began his pontificate in 1978; by the end of 2005, that number had grown to 114,439—a remarkable increase of 79.1 percent. During the same time period, the number of Catholics worldwide grew 47.4 percent from 756,533,000 to 1,114,966,000, while world population increased 48.8 percent, from 4.302 billion to 6.4 billion.

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 23,580, and in Asia, where the number nearly tripled from 11,536 to 30,066. The Americas, too, saw a growth in the number of seminarians, from 22,011 to 36,891, as did Australia and Oceania, whose numbers rose slightly from 784 to 944. The number of European seminarians, on the other hand, declined from 23,915 to 22,958.

While these continental trends manifest the vitality of the Church in Africa and Asia during the past three decades, they do not address the question of which countries are currently the most successful in attracting priestly vocations. To answer this question, CWR has calculated the ratio of seminarians to Catholics in each of the world’s nations and territories based on data in the 2005 edition of the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, which was published in 2007 by Libreria Editrice Vaticana. The Annuarium presents a year-end statistical overview of the Church—the 2005 edition offers data as of December 31, 2005—and does not publish any statistics for two nations: China and North Korea.

The ratio of seminarians to Catholics presents a more accurate picture of how vocation-rich a nation is than does the absolute number of seminarians. While the United States, for example, has more seminarians than Eritrea does (4,736 vs. 289), an Eritrean Catholic is 26 times more likely to enter the seminary than an American Catholic is. Likewise, Macedonia is 37 times more vocation-rich than Canada, and an Indian Catholic is 75 times more likely to become a seminarian than is a Catholic in Luxembourg.


Worldwide, there is one seminarian for every 9,743 Catholics. In Asia, the most vocation-rich continent, there is one seminarian for every 3,877 Catholics.

Fifteen of the world’s three dozen most vocation-rich nations are located in Asia, and over 45 percent of Asian seminarians are Indian. India has more seminarians—13,754—than any other nation in the world, even though it ranks only 16th in the world in Catholic population. India has more seminarians than all of the nations of North America and Central America combined.

Nearly a quarter of Catholics in India are Eastern Catholics, and the Syro- Malabar Catholic Church, which has 25 Indian eparchies (dioceses), traces its origin to the preaching of St. Thomas the Apostle. Father Antony Kollannur, chancellor of the Syro-Malabar Church’s major archiepiscopal curia, told CWR that India has so many seminarians because of “the long-standing tradition of around 2,000 years of Christian living, which is nourished by daily family prayers, frequent attendance at the liturgical celebrations, even on weekdays, and the great care taken to impart Christian teachings to the young children through the wellorganized regular Sunday catechism classes.”

Father George Madathi Parampil, vicar general of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago, says several factors contribute to India’s success:

• “Very exemplary Christian family life” with “no divorces”; “faith is an integral part of life,” manifested in Mass attendance and the catechesis of children; • “The influence of Catholic schools and colleges, where the Catholic atmosphere is still very much alive”;

• “The good examples given by the priests and their active involvementin the lives of the people”;

• “The interest the Christian community shows in bettering the lives of the economically depressed people”;

• The Church’s “active voice, never keeping silence when secular forces try to denigrate the moral and religious values of the people”;

• “Daily family prayer and Rosary at home”;

• “The faith tradition of ‘St. Thomas Catholics’ of [the southwestern Indian state of] Kerala, which traces its faith-heritage to the preaching of St. Thomas the Apostle and which has the greatest number of vocations.”

Kerala is not a predominantly Catholic state: over half of its residents are Hindu, and a quarter are Muslim. Father Gregory Arby, a Latin Rite priest and dogmatic theology professor at St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary in Kerala, says that while “the media are very much critical of us,” the “faith remains very strong.” Father Arby also points to vocation-promotion programs for high school students and the strong social status of priests as keys to attracting seminarians. Observing that “many of the vocations we now have are from the poor families,” he concedes that the “financial security” of priestly ministry may also play a role in India’s success in producing priestly vocations.

That success has had ramifications in neighboring Nepal, the world’s second most vocation-rich nation, with 26 seminarians for only 7,000 Catholics. “Almost all the religious working in Nepal today are Indians,” says Chirendra Satyal, secretary of the nation’s Catholic Media Commission. Father Bill Robins, a Canadian Jesuit at St. Xavier School in Kathmandu, also told CWR that most of Nepal’s seminarians are Indians. Satyal says that Protestantism is spreading rapidly across the Hindu nation and predicts that, with the collapse of the Hindu monarchy, Catholicism will soon follow suit:

The overall Christian population in Nepal has grown from a few thousand in 1990 to an estimated half a million now…. The ratio of seminarians to Catholics will decrease in the future, as I feel many people will now be becoming Catholics as the freedom to preach or openly evangelize is now there for the first time. You can now promote vocations into religious life openly, but still the number of lay people will grow more rapidly.

Bishop Anthony Sharma, SJ, the vicar apostolic of Nepal, has led the Church in his native land since 1984. He told CWR that the number of native seminarians has increased to seven because of an emphasis on pastoral work with youth. In addition to annual youth retreats and parish-based youth movements like the Legion of Mary, Bishop Sharma emphasizes the importance of “having a facility like what we call apostolic school, where village boys who give indications of intellectual ability and/or desire for the priestly or religious way of life are given the opportunity to continue their high school education and helped to deepen their knowledge of faith. The boys who join apostolic school are usually 12 to 15 years old.”

An active program of youth vocation recruitment also plays a role in Thailand’s success in attracting seminarians (the country is ranked 11th). A spokesman for the nation’s episcopal conference told CWR that “there is an annual campaign in every diocese every year,” and “recruitment is made when they are still young.” One major program is “vocational camping for the youth during summer vacation every year.”

Two of Asia’s most vocation-rich nations—Myanmar (16th) and Vietnam (29th)—were among 11 nations cited by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom for grave violations of religious freedom on May 2. Bishop Pierre Trân Dinh Tu of Phú Cuong told the Synod of Bishops in 2005 that Eucharistic devotion is bearing much fruit in the Church in Vietnam:

Vietnamese Catholics are practicing. For them, the Eucharistic celebration is of special importance. About 80 percent attend Mass on Sundays, and 15 percent during weekdays. On important feasts, such as Christmas and Easter, the number may reach 96 percent. If one wishes to find out the cause, one can find this out in the catechetical formation and in family education…. The lay faithful are made aware and invited to study the documents of the Magisterium of the Church on the Eucharist.… The episcopal conference organized a Eucharistic Congress at the Centre Marial National de Lavang, and there were 500,000 participants.

Parishes are invited to build adoration halls outside the church and to organize permanent adoration or several hours of adoration in the day … Eucharistic worship in Vietnam has brought healthy effects: religious life has increased, community activities are more animated, fraternal communion is more sensitive, and mutual aid among families has become more natural and numerous.

Even the prosperous Asian nations of South Korea (27th) and Japan (32nd) have been able to attract seminarians, though controversy has surrounded the Neocatechumenal Way seminary in the Diocese of Takamatsu, Japan. Three times between December 2007 and April 2008, delegations of Japanese bishops visited Rome to discuss the seminary’s potential closure. Asiabased UCA News quoted Tokyo Archbishop Peter Okada as saying, “We have here a serious problem. In the small Catholic Church of Japan, the powerful sect-like activity of Way members is divisive and confrontational. It has caused sharp, painful division and strife within the Church. We are struggling with all our strength to overcome the problem.” In April, the Japanese bishops secured Rome’s approval to close the seminary.

Technically, the world’s most vocation- rich nation, based on official statistics, is Mongolia. Father Pierrot Kasemuana Kitengie, CICM, a Congoborn missionary and superior of his religious community in Mongolia, explains the anomaly: “We do not have a single seminarian here … [the three seminarians] were young members of different religious congregations working in Mongolia … before being ordained priests. Actually this is the only kind of seminarian we have here, from time to time.”

Not every Asian nation is vocationrich: Middle Eastern Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia are hosting increasingly large numbers of Catholic guest workers, but may not have a single parish, let alone a seminary.


Christians also face grave difficulties in vocation-rich Israel and the Palestinian Territories (13th); among these difficulties, says recently retired Jerusalem Auxiliary Bishop Kamal H. Bathish, are “the very hard times that have always troubled this area because of the many successive wars, the consequent and permanent hard conditions of life, and emigration of Christian faithful.” The political situation led to the closure of a seminary for a year, and at it has been physically impossible for some young men to attend seminary. In addition, “social conditions (style of life, mentality, some aspects of civilization, etc.) imported from foreign European or American countries easily had a negative influence, reducing or almost suppressing the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in some parts.” Nonetheless, Israel and the Holy Land remain vocation- rich, says Bishop Bathish, for several reasons:

We must acknowledge that in the Middle East our people still conserve the sense and the importance of family life. This has been minimized in some parts of the diocese but, generally speaking, marriage and family are held in great respect, esteem, and importance. It is very frequent, after a generation that had easily five, six, or seven children, to see families even today with three, four, and even more children….

Our Catholic population usually lives around and close to the parish center and to the pastor, making relations with the Church easy and frequent. Where the pastor and the sisters frequently visit the families, the idea of becoming a priest or a nun remains alive within the people.

The parish school, usually run by either the pastor or the nearby sisters or even by some lay person belonging to the community and under the supervision of the pastor, is one of the most important elements that help to promote vocations, either to priesthood or to religious life for men or women. The parish school, financed by the Church, tries to receive as much as possible all the children of the community….

We are so privileged that our seminary has never known any vocations crisis (neither a students’ nor professors’ crisis), as it happened in European and American countries…. One difference [now] is that some “late vocations” (around 20-28 years of age) have been introduced.

Father Humam Khzouz, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, concurs; he told CWR that “we still have strong family relations … we still have our Catholic schools, where our parishioners receive their spiritual education, Catholic values, and catechism. The link between the priests and the families is strong; there are visits to the families, the blessing of houses. We still have [a] religious atmosphere.”

Msgr. William Shomali, rector of the Latin patriarchate’s major seminary, believes that the ratio of seminarians to Catholics is actually closer to one seminarian per 3,000 Catholics. Few seminarians, he says, come from the state of Israel, for “the quality of life in Israel is like the USA and Europe: very materialistic. The religious practice and the number of children per family are lower” than those of Palestinians and Jordanians.


With one seminarian for every 6,508 Catholics, Africa is the second most vocation-rich continent. The Coptic and Ethiopian Christian cultures that arose from the preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria remain fertile: modern-day Eritrea (fifth), Egypt (15th), and Ethiopia (24th) are among the world’s most vocation-rich nations.

Eritrea—“one of the world’s most repressive countries,” according to Paris-based Reporters without Borders—is the home of three Eastern Catholic eparchies of the Ethiopian Catholic Church. Father Ghebriel Woldai, who ministers to Eritrean Catholics at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, California, says that many Eritrean Catholics become seminarians because of the “good faith of the people and support of each family to the seminarians. And the faithful, by practicing their faith, also inspire the seminarians to see priesthood and a religious life as a perfect life for them. Most of the families of seminarians encourage their sons to become priests.”

Egypt’s Coptic Catholic Church, like the Ethiopian Catholic Church, uses the Alexandrian Rite. Bishop Kyrillos William Samaan, the Coptic Catholic bishop of Assiut, told CWR that the principal reasons for the Church in Egypt’s success in attracting seminarians are cultural (“We are a traditional, religious people”), economic (“To be a priest is a promotion for many people”), and apostolic (“We are doing intensive vocational pastoral work for recruiting vocations”).

Two of Africa’s most vocation-rich nations—Algeria (third) and Niger (11th)—are almost entirely Muslim. Ivo Mukoudi Lobe, the Algerian contact for the Charles de Foucauld Fraternity, says that since September 11, 2001, Algeria has experienced fewer tensions between Christians and Muslims than many other nations. The spirituality of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, says Lobe, “has been very helpful in fighting against poverty in many disadvantaged areas of the world” and has also “been helpful for those Christians in minority living in Muslim countries,” perhaps “further explaining the phenomenon” of seminarians in Algeria, whether foreign or native.

Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, has an average life expectancy of 44. Father Callistus Baalaboore, SMA, who ministers in Zinder, the nation’s second largest city, discounted the importance of the vocations statistics. “The Christian population in Niger is so low that when you divide the number of seminarians into it the ratio is high,” he says. “The Church in Niger is still in the primary [stages] of evangelization, and more than 97 percent of the population is Muslim … Niger is still lacking pastoral agents at all the levels.”

Besides the nations where the Alexandrian Rite Eastern Catholic Churches have taken root, West Africa is the most vocation-rich area of the continent. Nigeria (39th) has 5,631 seminarians, more than any other African nation; other West African countries that have a strong track record of attracting seminarians are Mali (38th), Cameroon (41st), Burkina Faso (42nd), Benin (43rd), Ghana (46th), Senegal (48th), and Togo (49th). Zimbabwe (36th) and Swaziland (40th) also attract a proportionally high number of seminarians.


Oceania, with one seminarian for every 9,214 Catholics, has nations and territories that are among both the most vocation-rich and the most vocationpoor in the world. While Australia’s 252 seminarians rank second numerically within Oceania to Papua New Guinea’s 427, the nation hosting the 2008 World Youth Day is vocation-poor (154th), as is New Zealand (144th).

Other Pacific Island cultures, however, have been remarkably successful in producing candidates for the priesthood. Tonga (sixth), the Cook Islands (seventh), Tokelau (10th), Fiji (17th), the Solomon Islands (19th), Vanuatu (31st), American Samoa (35th), and Samoa (37th) are among the world’s most vocation- rich nations and territories.

Emily MacGruder, a Catholic Peace Corps volunteer in Tonga’s capital of Nuku’alofa, offered CWR an American’s perspective on Catholic life in Tonga:

The reason that the Church in Tonga has attracted so many seminarians has more to do with Tonga’s culture than anything else. Tonga is an incredibly Christian society in practice. On Sundays, the entire country shuts down except for the bread stores. Every family attends a church each week, often multiple services.… Religious leaders here are given a great deal of respect and, to an extent, power. This is the reason I believe that the Catholic Church in Tonga has so many seminarians.… Working for the Church is one of just a few ways to gain prestige in this society that still has a political and social system with kings and nobles.…

The large majority of Tongans desire to get abroad. The priesthood is a way to do that. All seminarians are sent to Fiji and many appear to have further opportunities to work or study abroad.… I hope that answer doesn’t sound too cynical. It’s the way I see it here.… That said, all of the priests I’ve met in Tonga have struck me as extremely committed, discerning, curious, and intelligent.

Bill Falekaono, the Diocese of Tonga’s communications secretary, himself a former seminarian, traces the growth in Tongan vocations to the 1970 opening of a regional seminary in Fiji; previously, seminarians were educated in Australia or New Zealand. Falekaono also says that the closeness between Tongan priests and laity has helped to foster priestly vocations. “Because there are more and more local priests being ordained, people often know these young men, and they visit, and the priest becomes an ordinary person—not isolated and [not] left lonely in a presbytery,” Faledaono says. In addition, “people are willingly and genuinely offering their sons and daughters to the work of the Church,” for families have “a sense of pride” when one of their family members “serves in the life of priesthood or nunnery.” Materialistic motives cannot be discounted in some cases, he says; the “clergy lifestyle is an attractive one” in slow economic times.

Like Falekaono, Bishop Stuart O’Connell, SM, of the Cook Islands’ capital of Rarotonga, attributes his diocese’s success in attracting seminarians to Catholic family life. “While every vocation is a gift of God,” he told CWR, “I would see the foundation of wholesome family life as being an important ingredient. The vocations in the Cook Islands (both of priests and sisters) have come from families living on outer islands and atolls. In these smaller communities, family life is centered around Church life and activity.… Unless a young person is grounded in a strong faith, vocations will not come. I am filled with admiration for the wonderful faith of many of these families who have to struggle for everything they have. Yet challenges are a breeding ground for strong faith.”

Similarly, Archbishop Adrian Smith, SM, of the Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara, says that “many parents seem happy that their sons want to be priests. The place of the priest is important in our village communities.… Families are large here in Solomon Islands, and so giving a son to the priesthood is more acceptable.” Other factors, he believes, contribute to his nation’s success in producing seminarians:

• “Having our seminary in Solomon Islands has made a difference; young men feel confident about giving it a try”;

• “People in Solomon Islands are a very spiritual people; God plays a big part in their lives”;

• “At the end of secondary education, there are not many job opportunities available to young people; searching for something to do with their lives is very real to them”;

• “The Church is young in Solomon Islands, and there is a lot of excitement when a young man is ordained—that must spark off ideas in the minds of other young men.”

Unlike most of Pacific Island lands, the French territory of New Caledonia (170th) has faced particular difficulties in attracting seminarians. Father François Grossin, SM, a French missionary who serves as vicar of the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Nouméa, says that the decision to close New Caledonia’s seminary when the regional seminary opened in Fiji proved disastrous; while it eventually reopened, most seminarians are still sent to Fiji. Also harmful to priestly vocations was “the French 1968 cultural revolution and its side effects on the youth and also on the young priests of New Caledonia,” a significant number of whom left the priesthood at that time, including the seminary’s last director before its closing. Finally, the “nickel boom” of the 1970s brought prosperity to the territory but transformed it into a “secularized and materialistic” society, says Father Grossin.

In general, though, Oceania—excepting Australia and New Zealand—is one of the world’s most vocation-rich areas. “Who can fathom the mind of God?” asks Archbishop Smith. “Perhaps, it being evening time for the missionaries, it is morning time for the local Church.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.