In America last year, dioceses between them attracted just short of 600 new vocations to the priesthood. That is up almost 100 on just two years previously.
There are 70 million American Catholics, so that is roughly 14 times the number of Catholics on the island of Ireland. If we had as many vocations last year as the Catholic Church in the US had, proportionately speaking, that means St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, would have had 43 new entrants in 2015. Instead, it had 13 with four men commencing seminary studies at St Malachy’s in Belfast – not much more than a third, again proportionately speaking, of the number of new seminarians in the US. By any reckoning that is a very low number.
It is not as though the US total is indicative of rude good health. Vocations to the priesthood in America are still far lower than they once were but the trend is up and Maynooth would be over the moon if it attracted 40 or so men to the national seminary each year and especially if the trend line pointed upward.
Allowing for the fact that seminarians spend a year working in parishes, and allowing for a certain number being trained in the Irish College in Rome, and even allowing for a certain rate of attrition (that is, seminarians dropping out or being told to leave), that would still mean Maynooth would currently have about 180 students instead of 55 or so it has.
To put the matter even more in perspective, consider the fact that the North American College in Rome (the American equivalent of the Irish College) had just added a new wing to it which was blessed in January by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. It had to add the new wing because it has so many students.
There are two reasons why it has so many students. The first is that, as mentioned, vocations in the US are climbing slowly upwards, but the second is that a lot of US bishops have tremendous confidence in the North American College (known colloquially as the NAC) as a seminary. They know their students will be in good hands there.
It was not always so. Twenty years ago the NAC was in very poor shape, but a vigorous, brave, orthodox reform programme set it right.
There is a pattern here we seem mostly to ignore in Ireland, namely that a dynamic, unapologetic orthodoxy attracts vocations. This is simply a fact.
Look around the Western world and it is almost invariably the case that the dioceses which attract vocations have a strong, orthodox bishop, and a strong, orthodox seminary to which they can send their students.
They also make vocations an absolute priority and enough priests in the diocese encouraging vocations to make a difference. In other words, a pro-vocations culture develops. It can’t all be left up to the Vocations Director.
The US bishops’ website reports that seminarians were “encouraged to consider a vocation by an average of four people” and that seven in 10 were encouraged by a parish priest. How often does this happen in Ireland?
Can we say that Maynooth is vibrantly, self-confidently, dynamically orthodox in the way the North American College is? The answer appears to be, no.
Everything I have heard about St Patrick’s indicates something quite different. Down the years it appears to be hit and miss whether you will have a lecturer who is properly in tune with the teachings of the Church.
The formation side has seen the same ‘hit and miss’ pattern.
This newspaper reported last week that there has been allegations of “inappropriate behaviour” at the college. The allegations involved sexual relations among some of the seminarians.
Maynooth says it deals with such allegations robustly, but one of the seminarians who allegedly raised concerns about has reportedly been dismissed from the college. There had better be a good reason for that otherwise it is a true case of shooting the messenger.
Last year The Irish Catholic also reported that six seminarians had been pressurised to take time out after being accused of being too theologically conservative. Only three returned. I don’t know how ‘conservative’ these seminarians were. Were they conservative to the point of being authoritarian and fundamentalist, or were they simply orthodox in the way St John Paul II was orthodox?
Previously, we have had reports of seminarians being expelled for insisting on kneeling at the consecration against college rules. If I were a seminarian I think I would go along with the college, not because I object to kneeling at the consecration (far from it), but simply in the interests of “rubbing along, to get along”.
Still, expulsion seems very heavy-handed. Today, kneeling is the norm at the college, but that is only the case because of the Apostolic Visitation to the college some years ago led by the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. This appears to have been one of the very few reforms which resulted from that inspection.
To be honest, I don’t like writing about Maynooth because almost everything you are told about it is on a strictly off-the-record basis.
Seminarians are understandably scared to go on-the-record. So are priests who were once students at the college and so are ex-seminarians who were never ordained.
This makes it harder to discern what complaints are about something genuine and what is merely bitterness and sour grapes.
However, the complaints have been so consistent and have been made over such a long period that is very hard to ignore them and reports in this newspaper are based on absolutely impeccable sources.
However despite this last week’s report on the alleged ‘inappropriate behaviour’ still had to be circumspect partly because no-one would go on the record.
So how drastically is Maynooth in need of reform? I can’t answer that question with certainty but I suspect the answer is, quite a lot.
To judge from places like the North American College, if Maynooth was a place of dynamic orthodoxy (absolutely not to be confused with rigidity and fundamentalism), it would be attracting considerably more vocations.
If the seminary sounded a certain trumpet, not an uncertain one, it would be attracting more vocations, and if these constant worrying stories about Maynooth dried up, not because they were suppressed, but because the seeming problems were dealt with, then it would attract more vocations.
Above all, Maynooth needs to copy the successful seminaries, and if it is already doing that, then it needs to find a better way of doing it.
One way or the other, it needs to raise its game considerably, for the sake of the wider Church in Ireland which is dependent, even in the age of the laity, on a steady, sure flow of good, faithful priests to serve it.