The number of ordinations to the diocesan priesthood in England and Wales has fallen for the third year in a row, according to new figures released this week.
The statistics, published by the National Office for Vocation, showed a total of 21 ordinations in 2021 for the 22 Catholic dioceses in England and Wales, as well as the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
In comparison, there were 35 ordinations in 2018, 32 in 2019, and 27 in 2020.
An estimated 3.8 million adults in England and Wales identify as Catholic, while an autumn 2021 count found that 370,000 Catholics regularly attend Mass.
The number of ordinations in England and Wales has fluctuated considerably throughout the early 21st century, reaching a high of 44 in 2001 and a low of 15 in 2008.
The figure is predicted to rise again to 26 in 2022, before dropping to 20 in 2023, according to projections issued by the department of evangelization and discipleship of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
Priestly ordinations have been on a downward trend since the 1930s, but with brief periods of recovery in the 1960s and 1990s.
Ordinations by diocese
There is considerable variation in the number of priestly ordinations between dioceses in England and Wales.
The Diocese of Westminster, which covers north London and is led by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, typically produces the highest number, with four in 2021. This year, it was followed by the Diocese of Shrewsbury with three.
Shrewsbury Bishop Mark Davies has emphasized the importance of priestly vocations, opening a house of discernment at his cathedral.
Announcing the initiative in 2014, he argued that the “crisis of vocation is neither inexplicable nor irreversible,” saying that it could be resolved through prayer and a “renewed love” for the priestly vocation.
Close behind the Shrewsbury diocese, with two ordinations each in 2021, were the Archdiocese of Southwark and the Diocese of Portsmouth, led respectively by Archbishop John Wilson and Bishop Philip Egan.
But a recently published draft 10-year plan for the Portsmouth diocese estimated that the number of diocesan priests would fall by 63% between 2022 and 2042.
Nine dioceses had no priestly ordinations in 2021, including the archdioceses of Birmingham, Cardiff, and Liverpool.
The total number of new entrants into priestly formation in England and Wales in 2021 was 18, compared to 30 the year before. The formation process before ordination takes up to seven years, but can be shorter for older candidates.
There are also marked differences in the number of entrants among dioceses, with the Diocese of Salford in Greater Manchester having the highest number (three), followed by the Westminster diocese and several others with two. Nine dioceses had no new entrants.
Start your day with Starting Seven - a daily news roundup in your inbox.
Entrants by diocese
As of September 2021, there were 121 men in formation for diocesan/ordinariate priesthood, compared to 142 in September 2020. The average age for entry to a diocesan seminary is 36.2 years.
There were a total of 26 entrants to religious life (12 men, 14 women) in England and Wales in 2021, down from 42 in 2020.
The national synthesis document of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, drawn from listening sessions held during the diocesan stage of the global synodal process, noted that there was “great love of parish priests,” but did not stress concerns about a lack of priestly vocations.
An accompanying reflection by the English and Welsh bishops highlighted the importance of formation, but focused largely on the laity, saying that “we look to greater clergy and lay collaboration in serving the Church’s missionary mandate.”