Before a papal Mass at the council; area between papal altar and apse/cathedra altar, in front of it the seat of the pope. Lothar Wolleh,

Still waiting for Vatican II to bear fruit

  • October 12, 2023

Canada’s dioceses should adopt new measures to recruit more young men to choose a priestly vocation, says a new study of Canadian seminarians and recently ordained priests.

The number of priests is dropping like a stone. In 2021, the country lost 130 priests, mostly through death, while only 19 men were ordained, says the study by Ryan Topping, director of Edmonton’s Benedict XVI Institute for New Evangelization. The institute did its research with the help of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate of Washington, D.C.

While about 450 men are ordained for dioceses in the United States every year, Canada produced only 26 new diocesan priests in the two-year span of 2021 and 2022. The number of Canadian priests is falling by 3.17 per cent a year.

While the declining number of priests in Canada has been well known for decades, the study, Meet Our New Priests, reveals its dire nature. It also makes prudent suggestions for reversing the slide. The only other study of the issue of which I am aware was Martin Rovers’ 1996 “Who’s in the Seminary? Roman Catholic Seminarians Today.”

Unfortunately, those involved with the new study appear to have been unaware of Rovers’ work. While some questions posed of seminarians in the two studies are similar, they are not identical, making direct comparisons unreliable.

While many will say the priest shortage can be overcome by ordaining women and married men, the Canadian bishops will not go rogue and start ordaining anyone other than unmarried men without papal approval.

Nor is it an acceptable solution to replace the celebration of the Mass with liturgies led by deacons or lay people. One teaching of the Second Vatican Council is that the lay faithful participate in celebrating the Eucharist along with the priest. A Communion service reduces the laity to passive recipients of the Eucharist without an active sharing in the paschal mystery.

Well-educated priests are needed for the liturgy to be celebrated in its fullness and for lay people to play their own priestly role. Vatican II also insisted that the clergy are not the masters of the faithful but rather their servants. Their service includes enabling the laity to carry out their own role.

My own longstanding gripe is that, 60 years after the council, the lay faithful have still not been empowered to carry out their call to transform society in the light of the Gospel. Priests are essential catalysts for that transformation.

One finding of both Rovers’ and Topping’s studies is that Canadian men enter the seminary and are ordained at an age roughly five years older than their U.S. counterparts. Rovers says that means efforts to focus recruitment on high school and university students should be reviewed with most attention put on young men 30 and older.

Topping draws the opposite conclusion, citing a 2018 study which found that dioceses which focus on promoting priestly vocations to men and boys under 19 have been more successful than dioceses which focus on older adults.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, in a foreword to Meet Our New Priests, points to both the value and limits of research about vocational discernment. Such research can lead to programs which bear fruit if they “attempt to discern the movement of the Spirit in our day.”

However, we ought to be cautious. “The workings of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a disciple discerning a call from the Lord are obviously not patterned in accord with human strategic thinking, so we need to humbly admit the limits of programs we create to promote vocations to the priesthood,” the archbishop writes.

My own view is that the way to boost priestly vocations goes through the laity. If the lay faithful follow their call to be the light of the (secular) world, the new culture will give birth to both priestly vocations and the personal vocations of the laity. God calls everyone to walk a unique path through the circumstances of their social milieu and to transform that milieu with their words and actions.

None of this is easy. Vatican II sketched an understanding of Church and society which remains relevant today. If we implement the council’s teachings, what the council really said rather than what we imagine it to have said, the Church will bear abundant fruit, for the faithful and wider society.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.