Priests for tomorrow

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

A demonstration to show that the recovery of the Church and of the priesthood go in pair is unnecessary. The present situation could be desperate but, paradoxically, it is also providential: for, it shows the failure of a false reform in the Church, to recall the title of a work by Fr. Congar, and it emphasizes the elements of what a true reform could be.

The tree and the fruits

We will take France as our case study, as it is most probably the best documented situation in terms of priestly vocations, since the Council, and in any case the best known.

As soon as the end of the Council, in 1965, a situation forewarning of May 1968 had settled in the Church. Heresies were spreading without a fight, while all ecclesial institutions were shaken. It is hard to realize, today, the immense disruption provoked by the aggiornamento in religious institutes, in relation to the conciliar decree Perfectæ caritatis: between 1965 and 1970, their constitutions were amended, and a notable secularization transformed many aspects of the life of religious men and women (giving up religious dress, periods of silence, adopting the television in convents, religious moving into apartments, etc.) We then saw the disappearance, for lack of vocation, of religious institutes of apostolic life – an historic fact often overlooked – which represented an important element of the parochial fabric since the XIXth century.

At the same time, we saw a clergy becoming less and less apparent as it did everything to blend with the secular world, one of the most noticeable sign being the abandonment of the cassock. It is not necessary, here, to add more by recalling the commotion provoked by the liturgical reform starting in 1964, nor the drastic decrease in number of the faithful provoked by the general state of an unstable situation.

It is in this context that a dramatic decline of priestly ordinations started. Certainly, it was not the first time: there was a decline following the Separation of Church and State in 1905 and 1914; also an other which started in 1947, after years of impressive numbers following the war, a decline which nonetheless had not prevented a renewal of vocations in such a way that in 1965 the pyramidal structure for the clergy was exceptionally young[i].

Starting in 1965, the number of diocesan priests decreased in considerable proportions, because of the decrease in ordinations and also a “leaving” trend, which has never stopped since, even if it is lower in absolute numbers because the number of priests is much less. A study done by the Society of Saint Pius X, “Ranking of French dioceses”, compares the number of priests incardinated in French dioceses in 1964 and in 2020. We see that Paris went from 1,854 priests to 638; Lyon from 1,561 priests to 290; Verdun (Eastern France) from 298 to 47; and so on[ii]. Only one metropolitan diocese, originally poor in terms of number of priests, is today richer than in 1964, the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon (Southern France), which applied a rule of welcoming for many classic and traditional communities (190 priests in 1964, 202 in 2020).

Indeed, starting in 1965, the dramatic decline in vocations became, so it seems, irreversible: 646 diocesan priests were ordained in 1965 for the whole of France, 566 in 1966, 461 in 1968, 170 in 1975, with even less than 100 in 2004 (90 ordinations).

But, as it is, the profile of the newly ordained has very much changed, and this has been sensible since the 1990’s.

The new priests

Camouflage or realism: the official figures, given each year by the Conference of French Bishops, for several years have also included the ordination of priests from communities who are going to exercise a diocesan ministry, such as the Community Saint Martin, and even some traditional communities. This supply from communities extremely classic (Community Saint Martin) or traditional (Society of Saint Pius X, Sacerdotal fraternity of Saint Peter, Institute of Christ the King, etc.), without operating any particular increase, allows for a stable number of ordinands around one hundred per year: 110 ordinations in 2020, of which 16 for the traditional institutes, SSPX included; 88 in 2015, of which 20 for the traditional institutes; 112 in 2010, of which 16 for the traditional institutes. This underlines the importance proportionally of traditional ordinations: of the priests ordained every year, in France, 15% to 16% of them are ordained for the traditional liturgy.

The growth experienced by the Community Saint Martin reveals this evolution towards a more conservative line. Founded in 1976, first welcomed by Cardinal Siri in the diocese of Genoa (at the same time the SSPX was starting in Switzerland, then the FSSP, later, in Germany, and the ICKSP in Italy), it is today strong of 100 priests and many more seminarians, most of them French. 11 priests have been ordained for this community in 2020, 26 expected in 2021.

Most of this new priests are produced by a Catholicism which has itself evolved in a way. In 1960, 25% of French people attended mass every Sunday; 50 years after Vatican II, 1.8% still attend mass[iii].

Those faithful who continue to attend mass and most of all transmit their faith from generation to generation are clearly more “identitarian”. In an interview he gave to French weekly Marianne, on 17 November 2020 (“Demonstration for masses – Catholic hierarchy is under the impression their conservative base is ahead of them on the issue”), Yann Raison du Cleuziou, professor of Political science at the State University, Bordeaux, notes: “The profile of people going to mass is now made of those who remain, usually the more conservative, who more able to better transmit the faith in their family. Bishops can no longer ignore the youth who come from these families and who are quite re-active as well as comfortable in their faith.” And it is from this profile of young people that most priestly vocations come from today.

The same author, Yann Raison, had published the book A Catholic counter-revolution[iv]: The generations who participated in the Council have largely vanished now, in a Catholicism reduced to a small number of practicing faithful, those in majority are “conservative”, in the sense that they have maintained a sort of “conservatory” still very much alive. This phenomenon of basic Catholic resistance, says Yann Raison, also has some similitudes with other present movements in society, notably in the fact it is popular, of the people – not to say populist – in reaction against the “elites” in place, in this case, against the Catholic hierarchy.

This difference between Catholics today and their natural superiors is also found between seminarians and their professors, though the gap is diminishing by nature as new generations take new responsibilities in seminaries. But this is only taking place very slowly and with great opposition on account of the ideological weight of the “spirit of the Council”, even when interpreted in a conservative manner.

To rethink the diocesan priestly formation

It seems clear that in a totally new context, the formation of priests for tomorrow cannot copy, at least in the diocese, the formation given in the seminaries in the 1950’s. Should we even set up again classical seminaries or should we, on the contrary, imagine formations much more flexible, integrated into the parish and pastoral communities?

Whatever is done, it would have to allow for a pastoral formation adapted to a situation of a Catholicism of mission, definitely in minority, but called to represent in the contemporary democratic society the backbone of a counter-culture. The most important will be to ensure a spiritual and intellectual formation with high expectations, challenging in itself and in taking into account the needs arisen by fifty years of false reform in the Church.

Essential subjects of study: Critical history, in depth, of Catholicism from the time of the Revolution; Ecclesiology, taking into account objections to the equivocal paths of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue; Christology, at the time of the deconstruction inflicted by the last transformation of modernism; A proper study of the Last things; The treaty De Eucharistia, pointing out the watering down of the doctrine of transubstantiation and especially of sacramental sacrifice; Theology of marriage, without the law of graduality; etc.

We have to keep in mind that in conflictual situations – they will reach a high-point during the implementation of a recovery – the adoption of a centerline position is a powerful and permanent temptation. At the time of the “John Paul II generation”, this search of a third way was represented in France by seminaries like those of Paray-le-Monial, Aix-en-Provence, Ars, Paris, where the clergyman attire reappeared at the time of the diaconate. The Community Saint Martin, where they actually switched from clergyman to cassock, despite its advantages, comes also from this weakness.

As to the marginal life endured by communities devoted to the traditional liturgy, which stability and continuity has challenged the evolution of the Church for half a century, it gives them both the strength of a clear Catholic identity, and the disadvantage of a situation of second-class priests. The important evolution of the Catholic world taking place now, provided it is channeled by the bishops and, in the end, a pope who is truly a reformer, should lead this Tridentine world to pass, with humility but determination, from the state of a stumbling block to a cornerstone of the future recovery.

Fr. Claude Barthe

[i] On this subject, see: Hervé Le Bras et Monique Lefebvre, « Une population en voie d’extinction : le clergé français » (French clergy: A population on the verge of extinction), in Population, 1983, 38-2, pp. 396-402.
[ii] https://laportelatine.org/actualites/actualites-eglise/cdq.
[iii] La Croix Poll, by Ipsos, 12 January 2017. The percentage decreased again recently, since it is reported that 30% of practicing Catholics have ceased since the so-called sanitary crisis started.
[iv] Une contre-revolution catholique. Aux origines de La Manif pour tous (A Catholic counter revolution at the origin of the movement of La Manif pour tous), Seuil, 2019.