Patrick Donnelly thought he might like to be a teacher, or maybe a chef. Then the Roman Catholic priesthood captured his imagination — an increasingly rare event in this former bastion of the faith.
In much of Europe and North America, there aren't enough Patrick Donnellys anymore. The winds of social change and sex abuse scandals have made the priesthood — with its lifetime commitment and mandatory celibacy — an unpopular career.
While the number of Catholics jumped to more than 1 billion around the globe during John Paul II's 26-year papacy, the number of new priests didn't keep pace. Reversing the decline among American and European men will be a major challenge for the next pope.
"I know many people think I'm facing a lonely life ... a hard life," said Donnelly, 25, a student at St. Patrick's College, the only seminary still running in the Republic of Ireland. Seven others closed from 1993 to 2002. "But I'm happy with my choice and people respect that. I have a love of God, and I want to share that love."
The Vatican says the church had about 405,450 priests worldwide in 2003, a 3.7 percent drop from 1978, the year John Paul took charge. But in the United States and Europe — which accounts today for nearly half of the total — numbers have fallen about 20 percent over the period.
While recruitment to the priesthood is thriving in Africa, Latin America and Asia, it's nearly fallen off the map in Ireland, which for generations was a leading exporter of priests. The average age of priests here is nearly 60.
"It's a significant problem," said the Rev. Des Hillery, director of St. Patrick's College, a 210-year-old seminary in the bustling market town of Maynooth, west of Dublin. "I don't think it's a crisis, and it doesn't have to be a crisis. ... But who knows in 10 years' time. Nobody knows what's going to happen."
The seminary had about 600 students annually in the 1960s. When Hillery arrived a decade ago it had 220. Today there are 60, and fewer than two-thirds are expected to stay the seven-year course. The archdiocese of Dublin has more than 1 million Catholics — and graduated a single priest last year, and none at all this year.
The Rev. Kevin Doran, a Dublin priest who directs a network of recruiters called the European Vocations Service, says while some parts of Europe produce large numbers of priests — notably Poland and Malta — "much of Europe qualifies as mission territory."
Doran and seminary directors across Europe say there's no easy fix to luring young men to the priesthood. They're divided about whether dropping celibacy is part of the answer.
"The culture we live in has become highly sexualized. Many people believe it can be very difficult to be fulfilled if you don't have an active sex life," Doran said.
He cited an opinion poll of Irish priests last October that found 57 percent favored dropping the requirement. He said some men rule out entering seminary because of the celibacy rule, while others drop out midway because of it.
But Doran said he remains skeptical that ending celibacy would strengthen the priesthood, which must focus on the needs of a community, not one's own family.
"In a mature, integrated human being it should be possible that the affection and care which normally goes into a marriage can go into the pastoral care of the community," Doran said.
Others say the priesthood is shrinking in Europe because today's young Catholic men are products of a more selfish age and increasingly loathe to make any long-term commitments in their late teens and early 20s.
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