Number of German priest ordinations plummets to new low

Priests celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver Jan 17 2105 Credit Catholic Charities Jeffrey Bruno CC BY 20 CNA 1 26 15 Priests celebrate Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver, Jan. 17, 2015. | Catholic Charities/Jeffrey Bruno (CC BY 2.0).

Never before have so few Catholic priests been ordained in the Church in Germany: a total of 58 men joined the clergy in 2015, according to official figures published by the German Episcopal Conference this week.

Within the last decade, the number of ordinations has dropped by half. In 2005, a total of 122 diocesan priests were ordained. Five decades ago, in 1965, the number was 500.

While there were almost 20,000 Catholic priests in Germany in 1990, today their number has already dropped to 14,000. The drastic decline is set to continue, judging by the figures: last year also marked the first time in history that the number of new seminarians dropped to double digits. Only 96 new students were registered in 2015. At the same time, 309 priests passed away, and 19 left the priesthood.

The crisis of vocations to the priesthood is not just one of sheer numbers. A recent academic study showed that amongst the current clergy, more than half – 54 percent – go to confession only "once a year or less."

Further official numbers, published in July, confirm that the precipitous decline of the faith is not just restricted to the number of vocations: average church attendance in Germany is down from 18.6 percent in 1995 to 10.4 percent in 2015. The number of people departing the Church has increased within the same time frame, having peaked at over 200,000 annually in recent years.

The German bishops have mostly responded to the crisis twofold. They've first abandoned the traditional parish structure in favor of larger "pastoral areas," which take different names in different dioceses. In these, lay people, both paid and unpaid, play an increasingly important role in administering the Church. Secondly, several dioceses in Germany have large numbers of foreign priests working for them, mostly from Poland and India. Not all of these priests are fluent in German and/or familiar with cultural norms and traditions – which in turn occasionally leads to conflict.

With over 23.7 million members, Catholicism is the largest religious group in Germany, comprising 29 percent of the population. However, people are leaving in droves: In 2015, a total of 181,925 people departed according to official statistics published in July.  By comparison, 2,685 people became Catholic, and 6,474 reverted to Catholicism.

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