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ROME, June 23, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Vocations to the priesthood have continued a downward trend since 2012, according to data recently released by the Vatican’s Central Statistics Office.

“There is a continuation of the decline which has for some years characterized priestly vocations,” the Statistics Office, which operates under the Vatican Secretariat of State, stated in its 500-page Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae that covers up to the year 2015. 

Vocations to the priesthood: 1978-2015.

One metric for measuring the health of the Church is the number of new vocations to the priesthood to serve the Church’s 1.28 billion Catholics worldwide. A shortage of priests jeopardizes the life of faith for Catholics who no longer have a priest to minister to them.

Vocations to the priesthood rose sharply under the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II. In 1978, his first year, there were 63,882 seminarians worldwide, but by the year of his death in 2005 there were 114,439.

Total seminarians continued to rise modestly under Benedict XVI, reaching a peak of 120,616 in 2011. They then started a slow decline in 2012, when there were 120,051. 

That decline has accelerated under the pontificate of Pope Francis. Total seminarians have dropped from 118,251 in 2013 to 116,843 in 2015.

The Catholic Church has, overall, been experiencing a crisis in vocations to the priesthood. Bishops have been forced to close down parishes where there are simply not enough priests to run them. 

But that is not the case for all dioceses. 

A number of dioceses in the U.S. have found that where there is faithfulness to Catholic doctrine, vocations to the priesthood flourish. 

For example, when Bishop Robert Morlino arrived in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin in 2003, there were only 6 seminarians. The diocese was known as a bastion of liberalism, both politically and spiritually. But under his careful direction, the diocese has returned to orthodoxy and begun to flourish. 

The bishop shut down dissenting ‘Catholic’ groups. He had pastors read his letters defending Catholic teaching on marriage and the sanctity of life from Sunday pulpits. He returned tabernacles to the center of the sanctuary. He celebrated beautiful liturgies, some of them in the Extraordinary Form. By 2015, the number of seminarians had multiplied sixfold, growing to 36.

There is also the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, where orthodox bishops have inspired more men to become priests per capita than practically every other U.S. diocese. 

Lincoln Bishop James D. Conley linked the number of vocations in his diocese directly to faithfulness to Church teaching in a 2016 interview with Catholic World Report.

“Having the security of knowing that the Diocese of Lincoln is 100 percent faithful to Church teaching on faith and morals is very appealing to many young men considering the priesthood,” Conley explained.

The Vatican statistics show that the majority of new vocations are coming out of African countries. 

“The sole exception remains Africa, which does not yet seem to be affected by the crisis in vocations and is confirmed as the geographical area with the greatest potential,” the stats document states. 

The statistics also reveal that in many Western countries, including both Canada and the United States, the number of priests who died in 2015 was greater than the number of new priests ordained.

They also show that the number of Catholic marriages for every 1,000 Catholics continues a downward trend over a five-year period. 

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Pete Baklinski is Director of Communications for Campaign Life Coalition, a Canadian pro-life organization working at all levels of government to secure full legal protection for all human beings, from the time of conception to natural death. He has a B.A. in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College and a masters in theology (STM) from the International Theological Institute.