ROMERome’s largest English-speaking national seminaries are detecting an increase in numbers of vocations after a less fruitful period in the early part of the decade.

The Pontifical North American College, the Venerable English College and the Pontifical Irish College are all reporting higher numbers of candidates for the priesthood compared to a few years ago.

“We’ve seen a steady increase to the diocesan priesthood in the United States, and we are now seeing the benefit of that in the college,” said Father Dennis Gill, media spokesman at the North American College. He noted that vocations to religious orders are “still suffering quite a bit,” but that the college had experienced a “measurable increase.”

This academic year, the college accepted 46 candidates to the priesthood. The number compares with 38 candidates during 2003, 44 in 2004 and 43 last year.

However, the seminary has not yet matched the total of 51 new seminarians admitted in 2002. Some believe the drop in 2003 was a direct consequence of the sexual abuse scandal that broke out the preceding year.

The college, founded by Pope Pius IX in 1859, has a total of about 170 seminarians.

A similar story can be found at the Pontifical Irish College. Nineteen seminarians are currently studying at the institution, up from 16 last year. The college’s rector, Msgr. Liam Bergin, is very hopeful that more men will answer the call to the priesthood in the coming two or three years because of a boost from a growth in vocations in Ireland.

Like the North American College, the Irish College has been forced to deal with the fallout from clerical abuse scandals in Ireland.

“We like to think we’re emerging from a difficult and dark time,” Msgr. Bergin said. “There’s light on the horizon.”

For each of the past three academic years, the Venerable English College has admitted five new students, whereas in previous years it was receiving only one or two new candidates a year. In 2000, the college had just 15 seminarians; now it has 25.

“The numbers are picking up and the word on the ground in the UK is that there are more in the pipeline for next year,” said Father Andrew Headon, vice-rector of the college.

Father Headon, a former vocations director, stressed that the actual numbers of candidates in the English-speaking colleges in Rome cannot be compared, as each national situation is different and is dependent on the ratio of seminaries to students. But he added, “My gut feeling is that we’ve bottomed out and numbers are now on the increase. We reached a real low five years ago — the numbers went right down.”

A number of reasons are given for the upturn, but the most significant are believed to be stronger bishops and the papal transition last year.

Father Gill said that many of the North American College’s new students are coming from areas where there is clear thinking “and strong bishops who are deliberate and careful in their teaching of the faith.” He cited examples like Bishop Robert Carlson of Saginaw, Mich., whose diocese has seen a rapid rise in vocations since he was appointed bishop there in February 2005.

Father Gill also pointed out that many of the new seminarians come from small dioceses rather than large, metropolitan ones.

The change of popes has also played a significant role.

“I’m sure the death of Pope John Paul II has been a contributing factor,” said Msgr. Bergin. “It was extraordinarily positive advertising that the Church received in the media and was reflected soon afterwards by the numbers of people coming to Rome — it was essentially six weeks of free advertising that put Rome on the agenda.”

Father Headon agreed.

“As a result of the conclave, the media focused on the Catholic Church and all the good it does, which did counter the negativity of the scandals and definitely has had an effect on the number of people coming forward,” he said.

He remembered a similar phenomenon happening after Pope John Paul II’s visit to Britain in 1982.

“Looking back, there was a large increase in vocations from 1984 to 1986 and people were saying then that we couldn’t have paid for such publicity,” Father Headon said.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Pontifical German College has yet to reap the benefit of what Germans call the papst-effekt (pope effect) of Pope Benedict XVI’s election. Last year, the college’s intake was 17 students, while this year it was 15. According to its rector, Jesuit Father P. Meures Franz, the numbers are “stable,” and average at 15 a year.

Father Headon, however, sounded a hopeful note about German vocations. He believes that many of those who watched press coverage of the papal transition or attended World Youth Day in Cologne were impressionable teenagers who will reach the age at which they can enter a seminary in a few years.

Predicted Father Headon, “The German college will see a rise in numbers in the next two to three years.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.