ROME — Is the vocations crisis in Europe continuing to deepen, or is the ancient heartland of Catholicism showing signs of the “new springtime” called for by Pope John Paul II?

The answer appears to depend on which statistics you look at — and which parts of Europe. Looking solely at changes in the sum total of priests and women religious in Europe, the Church would appear to be in a worse state on the continent than even the secular press would have one believe.

But a closer look also reveals regions where increases are being registered in a key area: vocations.

According to data taken from the latest edition of the Church's statistical yearbook, Europe was the only region to show a decrease in priests. The total number at the end of 2003 — 201,854 — was down 1,897 from the end of 2002.

Over the same period, the number of women religious in Europe fell even more sharply, falling by 9,397 to 338,688.

The troubling figures, published Oct. 23, by Fides, the Vatican's missionary news agency, also revealed Europe to be the only continent to show a fall in the total number of Catholics, declining by 214,000 to 279,701,000.

The publication followed reports a week earlier that the Church in Scotland is starting to recruit priests from abroad to make up a shortfall in the number of priests. Numbers of seminarians there have fallen 80% in the last 20 years.

In the Archdiocese of Westminster in England, there are projected to be just 471 priests by 2015, only about half the number in 1990. Other parts of Western Europe face similar crises.

Secularization in Europe is often blamed as the reason for such gloomy statistics, a fact highlighted again by Pope Benedict XVI during a Nov. 7 meeting with Austrian bishops.

“The process of secularization, ever more significant for Europe, has not halted, not even at the doors of Catholic Austria,” he said. “Identification with the teaching of the Church is declining in many faithful, and in this way the certainty of the faith is lost and reverential respect for the law of God weakens.”

But the picture is not uniformly bleak. The statistical yearbook revealed that although the total number of seminarians fell in Europe last year, there were actually more diocesan seminarians training for the priesthood than in 2002.

Even Ireland, the European country where the Church has experienced perhaps the steepest decline in numbers and influence in recent years, shows signs of hope. The country will have 75 new seminarians this year, compared to 63 in 2004.

“Although the number of seminarians is less than it was 10, 20 or 30 years ago, we certainly feel the beginnings of a leveling off in the number of people joining the priesthood,” said Brenda Drumm, communications officer at the Irish Bishops’ Conference. “We don't feel there's a spiral downward.”

Archbishop Miller

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, secretary at the Congregation for Catholic Education, is skeptical of claims of continuing steep declines in the numbers of seminarians in Europe as a whole. The decline “is by no means precipitous,” Archbishop Miller said, noting that young men are still coming forward as candidates for movements, religious communities and local churches.

“There are still approximately 25,000 men preparing for the priesthood in Europe,” Archbishop Miller said. “That's a veritable army at the service of God's people.”

By far, the largest numbers are in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, where 95% of the population is raised Catholic and the Catholic faith forms a key element of national identity. Poland's seminaries have always been well attended, even during communist times. But it is unclear whether they will remains so as the country becomes more prosperous and, as a member of the European Union, more vulnerable to a secular Europe.

And despite hopeful signs that some seminaries are bucking the trend and attracting more vocations, the total number of serving priests and women religious continues to fall. Analysts of the phenomenon suggest it is in part a consequence of a general unwillingness among Europe's youth to make lasting commitments. This tendency not only reduces the number of candidates wishing to join the priesthood or religious life, but also contributes to an increasing number of priests and religious renouncing their vocations within 10 years of their ordination.

The strategy of inspiring more new vocations through innovations to the seminary system has so far yielded little fruit. Various approaches have been tried, including the recent move by the Archdiocese of Paris to divide seminaries into smaller groups. While the archdiocese temporarily attracted a large number of candidates with the new system, the sudden influx did not last.

Msgr. Peter Fleetwood, deputy general secretary of the Council of Catholic Bishops Conferences in Europe, said that some participants in the Paris seminary innovations resented an increase in monitoring of the seminarians. And the Vatican also reacted uneasily to the move as it departed from the traditional seminary system, he said.

The success of other changes in seminary practice has also faltered. According Msgr. Fleetwood, there has been “more and more emphasis on human formation, meaning maturity in various areas,” but he said it is “questionable” whether that has helped increase vocations to seminaries.

Eucharist Is Essential

Others suggest the solution lies at a deeper sacramental level. For Archbishop Miller, the key to fostering vocations is “encouraging prayer, especially adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.” He believes there must also be preaching that integrally links a priest's vocation with the Eucharist, and a fostering of activities to enable boys and young men “to think seriously” about whether they are called to be priests.

Archbishop Miller acknowledged that Europe's seminaries continue to wrestle with the issue, but he is optimistic.

“The pastoral care of vocations is a vital issue for the future of the Church in Europe,” he said. “Increasingly, there are signs that fostering priestly vocations is entering into the consciousness of ordinary Catholics and that they are taking steps to resolve this challenge.”

(Zenit contributed to this report.)

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.