Where the Laborers are Few

Mixed vocations news from Europe and the Americas.

As discussed in the July issue of CWR, the Church worldwide has enjoyed growth in the number of seminarians since 1978. According to data published in L’Osservatore Romano and the Vatican’s statistical yearbook, there were 63,882 diocesan and religious major seminarians when John Paul II began his pontificate; 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 and in Asia.


The number of European seminarians, on the other hand, declined from 23,915 to 22,958 between 1978 and 2005, making Europe the sole continent that has experienced a numerical decline in seminarians during that time period. While there is one seminarian worldwide for every 9,743 Catholics, Europe has one seminarian for every 12,224 Catholics—a much lower ratio than those in Asia (one seminarian for every 3,877 Catholics) and Africa (one seminarian for every 6,508 Catholics). Thus, an Asian Catholic is more than three times more likely than a European Catholic to enter the seminary.

Nonetheless, several European nations, most with small Catholic populations, are relatively rich in priestly vocations, including Finland (fourth in the world in the ratio of seminarians to Catholics), Macedonia (10th), Iceland (20th), Moldova (21st), Denmark (22nd), Liechtenstein (28th), and Romania (30th).

Finland’s high statistical ratio of seminarians to Catholics is attributable to the controversial presence of a Neocatechumenal Way seminary in the nation’s sole diocese of Helsinki. According to Father Cristiano Magagna, the seminary’s vice rector, the seminary has 14 seminarians from seven nations; Marko Tervaportti, editor- in-chief of the diocesan newspaper Fides, says that “they live here but study in Lugano, Switzerland, and, I am sorry to say, do not really even speak Finnish or know the diocese.”

Teemu Hairamu, president of the Societas Sancti Gregorii Magni, which promotes the extraordinary form of the Roman liturgy, adds, “They import seminarians from abroad to study in the seminary, and most of them leave when they graduate.”

The nation’s other four seminarians, according to Mr. Tervaportti, include two Vietnamese Finns who are studying in Rome and one member each of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King, both of which celebrate the liturgy in its extraordinary form. “We [Finns] love silence and beauty and solemnity, not noise and activity,” Tervaporrti told CWR. “Our relationship with God is very vertical, and horizontalness makes us more or less uncomfortable. Where the teaching and liturgy are orthodox, you have vocations, such vocations that endure.”

For his part, Father Magagna praises “the courage of the bishop of Helsinki, who, without fear, inaugurated a seminary of this type.” He attributes the Neocatechumenal Way’s success in attracting seminarians to its ability to resist secularization:

The root of today’s vocational crisis is the profound crisis of faith which the Christian world is passing through; the Neocatechumenal Way has proposed itself, from its beginning, as a way of initiation of faith: it is not a particular spirituality, but a gestation to faith, “an itinerary of Catholic formation, valid for our society and for our times” (Pope John Paul II). It is in this way of faith that the Christian community becomes central and has as its fundamental nucleus the family. In these two facts can be gathered all the secret of the Neocatechumenal Way…. It is a process of growth in faith which reconstructs the Christian community, and this becomes a sign to the world [and] resists the process of secularization; it is the base, the vital humus where vocations are raised up, grow, mature, and bear fruit.

European nations that face particularly deep challenges in attracting seminarians include the Netherlands (159th), Ireland (162nd), Sweden (163rd), France (169th), Belgium (172nd), Greece (174th), Luxembourg (180th), San Marino (214th), and Andorra (218th).

Pierre Durieux, spokesman for Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, primate of France and archbishop of Lyon, links the French vocation crisis to ignorance of Sacred Scripture. “Less than 50 percent of French people own a Bible,” he notes. “Only 21 percent of French people have read at least one passage of the Bible in a year.” Cardinal Barbarin, says Durieux, “associates these results with the very small number of vocations in France.”

“If the Word of God was indeed considered as a spring, it would entirely irrigate the soil of the Church,” Cardinal Barbarin adds. “Really, if the Catholics of France were truly beginning to read the Gospel, it would prove totally fruitful—that is to say, it would call new laborers for his harvest.”

Father Manuel Ciavatta, director of San Marino’s diocesan youth office, attributes San Marino’s vocation crisis to the fact that from 1966 to 1995, the bishop did not reside in the diocese.

The Church in all three of the Benelux countries—Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—is experiencing grave difficulties in attracting seminarians. The challenges that Dutch Catholic culture faces in nourishing priestly vocations extend to the nation’s current and former territories. The Netherlands Antilles ranks 176th in the world in the ratio of seminarians to Catholics; the 82,000 Catholics of Aruba and the 156,000 Catholics of Suriname have no seminarians at all.

Gérard Kieffer, coordinator of the Archdiocese of Luxembourg’s pastoral office, attributes his country’s inability to attract seminarians to a small Catholic population. “The most important reason for the low ratio of seminarians is surely the low number of Catholics in Luxembourg,” he told CWR. “You need a critical mass that is big enough to be compared to other countries. Nevertheless you are right when you note that the number of seminarians in Luxembourg is quite small. The low ratio can be noticed also for other disciplines like sportsmen or inventors.”

Eric de Beukelaer, press officer to the Belgian bishops, links his nation’s vocations crisis to secularization:

Belgium has turned into one of the most secularized societies of Western Europe. This is the kind of phenomenon Ireland is now experiencing: a society brutally “emancipating” itself from its Catholic roots—a Church that traditionally had an important social impact being all of a sudden considered a “has been” by public opinion. Today, only 25 percent of the Belgian population still has some form of religious practice, and only 8 percent of this population practices on a regular basis.

Nonetheless, says de Beukelaer, “a new generation of seminarians is appearing. Their numbers are small, and they realize that their choice goes against the social tide and that their Church is becoming a minority Church. They are far from being superheroes, but this does not scare them. They believe in the power of the Spirit.”


Nowhere is it more true that the harvest is great and the laborers are few than in the Western Hemisphere. There the number of seminarians has increased from 22,011 in 1978 to 36,891 in 2005. Nonetheless, North America (one seminarian per 15,591 Catholics), Central America (one seminarian per 15,389 Catholics), South America (one seminarian per 14,553 Catholics), and the Caribbean (one seminarian per 19,535 Catholics) are the world’s most vocation-poor regions. Colombia (91st in the world) is the only nation in North, Central, or South America that exceeds the worldwide ratio of seminarians to Catholics; the Caribbean nations of Jamaica (85th), Antigua and Barbuda (87th), and the Bahamas (88th) also do slightly better than average. Guatemala (164th), Uruguay (167th), Honduras (168th), French Guiana (171st), Guyana (177th), Cuba (178th), and Belize (179th) are among Central and South America’s most vocationpoor nations and territories.

Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of French Guiana’s capital of Cayenne explains that “until recently, missionary fathers had plenty to offer as missionaries from abroad for pastoral ministry.” Bishop Lafont adds that “many families…discourage their children from answering God’s call in favor of more lucrative and favored professions. In view of the scarcity of population, youngsters go to Europe for further studies, and most of them never come back.”

Two missionary priests offered CWR their analysis of neighboring Guyana’s difficulties in attracting seminarians. Father Gregory Gimeyi, a Ugandan missionary in Demerara, serves two parishes that are 75 miles apart. He says that today there are only four native Guyanan priests in the entire nation and explains that many Guyanan priests have left the priesthood for marriage, “so I think the problem is the vow of celibacy.”

On the other hand, Father Pablo Waldmann attributes Guyana’s vocations crisis to theological dissent and leftist politics. Now provincial superior of his order, the Institute of the Incarnate Word, in Peru, Father Waldmann formerly ministered in the northern Guyana city of Santa Rosa, which obtained electricity in 2004. He explained that when “very hard-line Marxist Communists” gained control of the nation’s legislative council in 1953, they took control of 50 Catholic schools and thus effectively cut off a seedbed for vocations. In addition, says Father Waldmann, the English Jesuits who ministered in Guyana had “vocations infected with progressivism”; these Jesuits, he said, had a “terrible theology,” though “good Jesuits recognized they had been mistaken.” These factors, combined with “the proliferation of the sects,” have led to “closed churches and the lack of vocations.”

In the Central American nation of Belize, which gained independence from Britain in 1981, Father Leo Palma is pastor of the nation’s largest parish and vocation director of the Diocese of Belize City and Belmopan, which includes “23 mission stations, 16 primary schools, two high schools, and one junior college.” Citing consumerism, materialism, and the lack of involvement of youth in the Church as factors contributing to Belize’s vocation crisis, he echoes Father Waldmann’s comments about dissent:

As priests we need to be faithful and obedient to the Church and the teachings of the Church as handed down to us by the apostles. Sometimes, it seems as though each and every one of us is heading in his own direction…. There has been a fall in family life and values in our society. We need to hear more from the priests in our diocese of the evils of contraceptives in marriage. There are many Catholics who use contraceptives, and many times they are ignorant of the evils of the use of birth control…. In order for the diocese to get vocations we need good Christian families…. Another reason that causes the diocese to have so few vocations is a lack of proper teaching of the faith in our Catholic schools.

Father Palma observes that some mothers oppose their sons’ vocations “because of the many scandals and wrong things some priests have done. Thus, parents are afraid that if their son goes [to seminary] people might think that something is wrong with the sexuality of the child.” Father Dan Estes of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, who served as a missionary in Belize for four years, adds:

I really feel that the major reason, at least in the area where I was located, that we did not attract more young men to the priesthood was the lack of familial support. I had run across a number of older people who felt called to the priesthood or religious life, but in almost every case their parents were against them…I saw the same thing in recent times with other young men that I believe might be called to the priesthood, and young women called to religious life. The main issues are the same, and if they don’t get the support from their families, especially their parents, it is highly unlikely that they will follow a call. They have great respect for their parents, in a certain way, and they are made to feel guilty often when they talk of a vocation because now they will not be able to take care of their parents and their siblings after all that has been done for them.

The manner in which some missionary priests carry out the pastoral care of large geographic parishes can also hinder the development of vocations. Priests who disregard the Church’s canonical limitation on the number of Masses offered in a day ironically neglect the spiritual needs of the faithful and “risk abusing the Eucharist,” says Father Palma. “There are priests who say five, six, or even seven Masses in one day on a regular basis,” and these priests at times ignore requests for confession, discouraging vocations and causing some to leave the Church. Ajudicious use of licit Communion services and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist in parishes with numerous missions, says Father Palma, can allow priests to hear confessions, anoint the sick, and cultivate priestly vocations.


The Church in the United States clearly suffers from a vocations crisis: its ratio of seminarians to Catholics ranks 116th among the world’s nations. The situation in 165th-ranked Canada is worse. While the United States has four times the number of Catholics— 66,893,000 vs. Canada’s 14,009,000—it has more than 10 times the number of seminarians (4,736 vs. 454).

Several Canadian bishops discussed their nation’s vocations crisis with CWR. Bishop Murray Chatlain of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in the Northwest Territory says:

My diocese is about 60 percent aboriginal, and we have had very limited success with aboriginal young men…. The aboriginal culture does not look to young, university-trained men for spiritual leadership. They look to the elders. Another piece is not just a lack of vocations, but a lack of parishioners.The general tone is that people just do not overly concern themselves with God. To attend Mass once a week seems a big commitment to many Catholics of our culture. To give one’s life to God is quite a leap. I think this cultural atmosphere could change quickly, but until it does people willing to work for God will be limited in number.

The lack of participation of aboriginal (Native American) men in Catholic life may also be a legacy of the widespread physical and sexual abuse that took place in Canada’s residential schools. Between the 19th century and the 1970s, 150,000 aboriginal children were removed from their families to be educated in these schools, many of which were run by Catholic religious orders; from 1920 to 1948, the Canadian government mandated the removal of aboriginal children from their families nationwide. On June 11, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a historic public apology to former students of residential schools on behalf of the government.

Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie of Keewatin-Le Pas, Manitoba, also formally apologized this year for Catholic participation in the residential school scandal. He believes that “secularity and all its allurements,” smaller family sizes, and “sexual abuse scandals, combined with the negative legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada,” have negatively impacted the number of Canadian priestly vocations. He told CWR that in addition, “large missionary areas do not attract youth as they did in the past,” and “celibacy may be a deterrent.”

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, Alberta, was present in the House of Commons during Prime Minister Harper’s historic apology and represented 50 Catholic religious orders and dioceses in a 2006 legal settlement with former residential school students. Asked to comment on why the Church in Canada has such difficulty in attracting seminarians, he told CWR that

despite some anecdotes, I do not think that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is a major issue here—teachers and cops have been accused of similar crimes, and yet people are still most willing to become teachers and cops. I do not think there is a lack of effort on the part of dioceses and religious communities: never before has so much been done for the sake of so few and with so few results.

Instead, he believes the two underlying causes of the vocations crisis are that “parents, especially mothers, are no longer encouraging their sons to become priests” and that “the society we live in is a very secularized one”:

The vast majority of priests in my archdiocese are from India and African countries. These places have more priests than they know what to do with. When they describe their society, it is a religious one. No matter what faith we’re dealing with here, everyone believes something and practices their belief on a regular basis. The priest or mullah or shaman is a respected person in their societies, a wisdom-figure. Our society is intent on pushing religion out the door and barring it. Religion and Church are tolerated at best. Now, having said that, there are still many, many fine believers and believing homes in our nation. But you mix this with number one above [lack of familial support for vocations], and you have few homegrown vocations to the priesthood in our society. This is how I see it.

Bishop John Dennis Corriveau of Nelson, British Columbia, agrees: “I believe that secularism is the major stumbling block for vocations in Canada.” He adds:

Marriage commitment suffers in Canada equally with the crisis in priestly and religious vocations. The number of persons choosing not to marry continues to grow. The percentage of failed marriages is high. The cult of autonomy and open-options is equally devastating for the commitment demanded of priests and religious. It is my impression that secularism in Canada is more akin to that of northwest Europe than the secularism of the United States. This secular spirit infiltrates and strongly influences even committed Catholics.

According to Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, the nation’s vocation crisis is most severe in Quebec, which has half the nation’s Catholics but “very few priestly vocations.” The English-speaking Canadian provinces, too, have “been greatly affected by rapid and aggressive secularization. The culture and of course the very small families discourage vocations.”

Calgary Bishop Fred Henry— renowned for his strong defense of Catholic teaching on abortion and human sexuality—also points to “significant cultural faith challenges that impact all the vocations within the Church, that is, relativism, individualism, smaller families, affluence, materialism, consumerism, lack of community, and the non-invitation to consider special vocations of service.”

He says that “in the Diocese of Calgary, our ratio of seminarians is lower than [the national average of] one for every 31,200 Catholics,” but notes a silver lining in the crisis: “In the past 10 years we have ordained more than 40 permanent deacons and have instituted all kinds of initiatives for the formation of laity in the parish and the world.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 62 Articles
J. J. Ziegler, who holds degrees in classics and sacred theology, writes from North Carolina.