The Catholic Church of England and Wales has seen an increase in the number of men who have entered the seminary to study for the priesthood since the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005.
Fr. Paul Embery, director of the National Office for Vocations of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, explained in an interview with SIR that the death of John Paul II generated a lot of interest in the Catholic Church.
"The young saw the fidelity that the Pope had for his vocation and were attracted by his faith,” he said. The number of vocations is higher today than it was three years ago, he added.
The average age of candidates has risen. Fr. Embery said the typical candidate to the priesthood today is a 30-year-old graduate, English or Welsh. Very few are from non-white ethnic minorities.
”In 2003 the low point was reached with only 24 new entrants into seminaries. Last year, by contrast, there were 44 new priests, an increase that is a strong sign of hope," said Fr. Embery.
Still, the number of candidates to the priesthood is very low compared with the 1950s and 1960s, and there are fewer priests that are ordained each year than the number who die or retire.
“In a typical diocese, two to three priests retire or die each year and only one new one is ordained,” he said. “Last year, 20 priests were ordained in England and Wales, a number insufficient to replace those who died.”
Fr. Embery said there is currently one priest for every 800 faithful in the country. He calls this a “very generous ratio for these times” compared with the ratio in other European or Latin American countries. “In Latin America,” he said, “there is only one priest for every 9,000 inhabitants.”
The priest attributes the decline in vocations to the drop in church attendance and religious practice. As well, he said, there is very little in terms of Catholic outreach to young people past the age of 18 and those in university.
“In Great Britain, the Catholic movements are not so strong …and young university students must be highly motivated if they want to continue to go to church,” he said. On the plus side, this also translates into vocations to the priesthood that are also more highly motivated than before “because aspirant priests must be very conscious of the reasons that motivate their work and be able to justify it to non-believers," he said.
The National Office for Vocations has attempted to reach younger age groups with their vocations campaign by using Japanese Manga cartoons.
"Many priests and religious confirm they had thought of their own vocation for the first time when they were little more than 10 years old, sometimes even earlier,” said Fr. Embery. “So we thought these cartoons, which speak of real vocations, were the best way to communicate with children who aspire to become priests.”