One of a two-part series
The Catholic Church has a problem. Although the number of Catholics around the world has grown by about 600 million since 1970, the number of priests has slightly decreased.
The priest shortage is well documented in Europe and the United States, where the church’s influence is diminishing – churches in Spain have begun holding mass online – but it affects South America too, where most countries remain at least 70 percent Catholic.
In Peru, the shortage is particularly acute. For every 10,000 parishioners in the country, there is about one priest. Among countries that are at least 10 percent Catholic, Peru has the 7th lowest parishioner-to-priest ratio.
Why are so few young Peruvians becoming priests?
The priests and students I talked to proposed several reasons for the lack of new clergy. Most mentioned the pedophilia scandals that have rocked the church since the late 1980s. Some cited the direction of the church and its leadership, while expressing hope that Pope Francis, an Argentine, will attract more youth to the priesthood.
But for many clergy, the problems have less to do with headline-grabbing events than with changes in the day-to-day life and organization of the church.
Priests need recruiting, too
Although theoretically the local diocese contributes to recruitment, some are more organized than others. The priest in charge of recruitment for the archdiocese of Cusco has so many other responsibilities that he has little time to organize recruitment efforts.
Father Jorge Valeriano Bautista came recommended as an excellent recruiter. Six of the 44 seminary students in the San Abad Seminary in Cusco are from his parish in the town of Urubamba.
Bautista is tall, thickly built and energetic. He repeatedly mentioned the importance of humor and charisma in attracting youth to the seminary. While I waited for him to meet me, I stole a glance at his date book, and noticed that for the coming week, he was solidly booked from morning to evening. Noted next to every time were the names of parishioners to baptize, marry, bless and confirm.
To Bautista, the lack of new priests is a result of a hierarchy that is sometimes too rigid.
“A priest isn’t on top; he’s a friend you can talk to, joke with,” he explained. “It’s not a vertical relationship; it’s something more human, more familiar.
Bautista works with local Catholic schools to organize information sessions and retreats in his parish. He regularly visits classrooms to talk about the priestly life. A number of new priests come from catechism classes, which young Catholics take to prepare for confirmation.
“Not all priests are good with young people,” acknowledged Bautista. “I’ve worked with kids since the seminary…you have to talk to them, understand their jokes. Wherever I go, I’m surrounded by them.”
David Choque Camala, a 28 year-old seminary student, comes from a rural village near Cusco. His parents are poor farmers. He said he was inspired to join the seminary when a group of Chilean priests came to work in his community.
“I saw them, and reasoned like this: these people left their country and everything they had to be with us. That animated me,” he said.
Choque organizes lectures in Cusco to give young people the chance to learn about the seminary. Although attendance has been good, he is discouraged about their impact.
“Is there anyone who attended and is now in the seminary? Honestly, no,” he reflected.
He believes that most of his peers were attracted to the priesthood the same way he was, by a living example. “None of us here is the fruit of an information session. We are the products of testimony.”
Bringing the Church into the digital age
Local priests are paramount to recruiting new clergy, but in recent years, the Vatican has expanded its digital presence and invested in online and social media strategies.
Estanislao Ormaeche runs the website WhyNotPriest.org, and contributes to the Spanish-language site Vocacion.org. The online outreach effort began in the early 2000s, under Pope John Paul II.
He coordinates a team of 20 priests from around the world who answer questions submitted through the site, which range from the practical to the existential.
Among the most common: “What if my parents don’t want me to become a priest?” “Can I become a priest if I’ve masturbated?” and “What is my true calling in life?”
Public perception of the priesthood is a big problem, said Ormaeche. Another common question the site receives is “Can a normal person become a priest?”
“There’s a lot that people don’t know about what goes on inside the church. People get frightened,” he said.
Part of Ormaeche’s mission is to demonstrate that the priests are ordinary people. One way he does that is through videos like this one – which attempts to counter the idea that the road to the priesthood is boring, difficult, and lonely.
In another, priests answer the question “Do you like girls?” Yes, says one: “I used to like girls, now I love them.”
Ormaeche believes that the Vatican’s online strategy has been successful. Over the last 5 months, more than 2,500 questions have landed in his inbox.
“I’m one of the examples,” he said, “I submitted a question to the site, ‘Do priests really wear cassocks?’ I liked the videos.”
He said that three of the students in his year at seminary were also influenced to join the seminary by answers received through the website.
Better organization and more resources might help the church attract seminarians — recruitment efforts in Mexico are particularly energetic — but what if the stagnating number of new priests has less to do with the sales pitch than the waning attractiveness of a product that has barely changed since the 4th century?
The second part of this article will be published next week.