Church looks to a future with fewer priests

by Morven McLean,

A light-filled chapel forms the heart of the seminary in Villars-sur-Glâne near Fribourg. Built 30 years ago to hold 40 young men, it currently houses five.

It’s the same story at most of the country’s centres for training Roman Catholic priests. Researchers predict that in 2029 there will be one third fewer priests than there were in 2009.

They and progressive voices in the Church are calling for an open and honest discussion of its future.

In Basel, Catholics have even urged the dropping of the celibacy requirement and demanded that women be admitted as priests. (See sidebar)

A book published by the Swiss Pastoral Sociological Institute at the end of 2011 uses current trends to chart the priesthood’s likely development. It predicts an ageing and diminished body of priests offset to some extent by an increased role for non-ordained workers.

“We made a prognosis about the next 20 years. And there’s no big surprise: the numbers of priests nearly everywhere will decrease,” co-author Arnd Bunker told The institute director explains that the expected decrease is down to more priests dying than being ordained.

“This is an old problem, to do with vocations. Celibacy is a reason but it’s not decisive,” he said.

“It’s a problem of the place of the Church in the life of our society and culture. The place of institutionalised religion, the mainstream churches, has changed a lot. The old structures of vocation do not exist anymore.”

Whereas in 1991, 177 students were in training for the priesthood in Switzerland, 20 years later that figure had dropped to 88. Looking into their crystal ball, the researchers believe that at best the number of vocations will remain stable. Unknown factors include possible changes to admission requirements and the longer term effects of the sexual abuse revelations in the Church.

At the seminary in Villars, Rector Nicolas Glasson is hopeful that the decline in ordinations will halt or even be reversed, as seems to be the case in neighbouring France.

“In France in the past 30-40 years they have gone through what we’re going through now. In the past two years numbers have been static there and now they are up about ten per cent,” Glasson told

In April-May 2010 the Church in France launched a public relations campaign aimed at attracting more young men to the priesthood. Tens of thousands of postcards were distributed in cafés, cinemas and college campuses and a facebook forum dealt with enquirers’ questions. The Church pronounced it a success.

Seminarians Mikhaël Boichat, 22, and Francois Perroset, 29, are in the third and fourth years of study respectively. They see trends in society as being responsible for the fall in vocations. But they believe God is still calling young men to the priesthood. What is needed is the support of family and friends.

Current solutions

Bünker says views on what needs to be done differ, with the six bishoprics all pursuing their own strategies.

In terms of priest numbers, St Gallen has the biggest problem. (See graphic)

“On the other hand it has more or less the same number of lay pastoral workers as professionals. They are also the youngest in Switzerland. So one could say St Gallen is coping very well with the situation.”

Other dioceses, including Lugano, are resorting to recruiting priests from other countries. But this is not a long-term solution, in Bünker’s view.

“We have to reflect on whether a church is able to reproduce itself. Our local churches are not sustainable.” Bünker sees a fundamental problem with importing priests from countries where the ratio of Catholics to priests is higher than in Switzerland. (See graphic)

Then there are cultural and language issues. “There’s also a problem with racism and acceptance. It’s a problem for the priests coming from abroad and it’s also a challenge for the communities and parishes who have to find a way of living together,” said the researcher.

On the other hand, “importing” priests enriches the local Church’s diversity and brings different perspectives, he believes.

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Empty altars? The Catholic Church is facing a drastic shortage of priests (Keystone)

The church equality initiative (Kirchliche Gleichstellungsinitiative) was handed in to the Basel church authorities in January 2012, with 2,000 signatures of church members in cantons Basel city and Basel country.

The initiative calls on the synod and church council to work to introduce the priesthood of women and to ensure compulsory celibacy is done away with.

The synod is obliged to answer within two years.

Co-organiser of the initiative, Monika Hungerbühler, says a podium event with supporters and opponents of the initiative to exchange views is being mooted for the end of the year.

Allowing women to become priests is “a question of fairness”, according to Hungerbühler. “In Switzerland we were almost the last to introduce voting rights for women, although it’s said Switzerland is the world’s oldest democracy.”

“Many women already feel they are priests but aren’t allowed to be priests in practice,” she says.

In the Catholic Church women are allowed to do everything except dispense the seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, holy communion, confession, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick

1 reply

  1. I believe the Catholic Church should allow married and female priests soon, otherwise they will soon be hiring Imams to lead the services.

    Actually, come to think of it Imams may work without a salary, I will volunteer my services!

    But, seriously, the empty churches and increasing agnostic population of Europe, are all signs that dogma of Trinitarianism, no longer inspire the hearts and souls of humans. The Church should consider initiating open and constant dialogue with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in all its services, to provide a smooth transition to peaceful and rational Islam.

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