Maynooth: ready for a vocations reboot?

Maynooth: ready for a vocations reboot? St Patrick's College, Maynooth.

This Sunday sees the seminary at Maynooth open up for another academic year. When the men who have been chosen to discern a vocation in the seminary take up residence on the historic campus this weekend it will be after a turbulent period.

“I wasn’t happy with Maynooth,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said last summer, explaining his decision to send three Dublin seminarians to the Pontifical Irish College in Rome rather than to the national seminary.

“There seems to an atmosphere of strange goings-on there, it seems like a quarrelsome place with anonymous letters being sent around.

“I don’t think this is a good place for students,” the archbishop said.

All the more curious then, perhaps, that Dublin’s archbishop is to speak in Maynooth this November, drawing to a close an international conference titled ‘Models of Priestly Formation: Assessing the past, reflecting on the present, and imagining the future’.

Some might see this as indicative of a thaw in relations between the Primate of Ireland and the national seminary of which he is, after all, a trustee, and while this would surely be a good thing, the conference itself may prove an important pointer to how change is afoot in Maynooth and across the national vocations scene.


The speakers at the conference are certainly impressive: Armagh’s Archbishop Eamon Martin will open the conference, with Archbishop Jorge C. Patrón Wong, Secretary for Seminaries at the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy giving the opening lecture on ‘The Gift of the Priestly Formation’.

Fr Hans Zollner SJ from the Pope’s child protection commission, Sr Katherina Schuth OSF of Minnesota’s St Paul Seminary, Fr Christopher Jamison OSB of the National Office for Vocations in England and Wales and Fr John Kartje’s of Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary are just some of the other prominent names who will speak in Maynooth this November.

Not a moment too soon, one might think. St Patrick’s College may have hit the mainstream headlines during last summer’s ‘silly season’, and staunch defenders of the status quo were quick to reject criticisms, but questions have been asked for some time about whether or not it was fit for purpose.

Were allegations that some seminarians had been using gay dating apps a sign of a wider malaise? Maynooth’s critics certainly believed so.

Questions about Maynooth are hardly new. Indeed, in 2011 Ireland’s seminaries were examined as part of the Vatican’s visitation of the Church in Ireland, with the visitors generally praising the seminarians for their human and spiritual qualities, and their commitment to the Church and its mission, with serious attention being given to studies and formation.

In acknowledging the report, the Irish bishops highlighted these facts, while saying nothing about areas the Vatican highlighted for improvement.

The Vatican had, after all, also recommended that episcopal oversight over the seminaries be strengthened, that more consistent admission criteria be introduced, that greater concern be shown to the orthodox intellectual formation of seminarians, that the formation of seminarians for priesthood be more systematic and balanced, that pastoral programmes be reviewed, and that seminary buildings be reserved for seminarians and those preparing them for priesthood.

With the exception of the erection of new doors (dubbed ‘Dolan’s doors’ by seminarians after New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan who supervised the review) there is no evidence that any of this was carried out, and last summer’s problems appear to have brought this to a head, as was indicated not merely by the Archbishop of Dublin’s aforementioned comments but by an August 2016 statement from the college trustees.

The trustees – Ireland’s four archbishops and 13 of their brother bishops – stressed then that the Church has clear instructions on the formation of seminarians with there being no place in seminary communities for any behaviours or attitudes that might run contrary to the teaching and example of Christ.

They also said they had concerns about “the unhealthy atmosphere created by anonymous accusations” along with speculative and malicious social media comments.

To address this, they undertook to review the seminary’s policies and procedures for reporting complaints with the aim of adopting best practice ‘protected disclosures’, usually known as ‘whistle-blowing’.

They also said they would ask the seminary authorities to evaluate and review its policies on internet and social media use, and assess the seminary’s future personnel and resource needs.

Beyond the above three things, the trustees also said they would request six things of the bishops’ conference as a whole, starting with the commissioning of an independent audit into the governance and statutes of Irish seminaries, pushing ahead with a standardised national policy on seminary admission, beginning arrangements for all would-be seminarians to have a pre-seminary ‘propaedutic’ year, conducting the triennial review of the national seminary and the Irish College this spring, and setting up a subcommittee to examine the pastoral needs of priestly training in the Ireland of today.

Subsequent months saw the formal opening of a new seminary in the Archdiocese of Armagh, Dundalk’s Redemptoris Mater seminary, which opened with 16 students from Ireland and several other countries, studying in Maynooth but being formed in Dundalk to be priests of the Neocatechumenal Way, and also the establishment this summer of a national vocations office.


Although clearly part of the overall vocations discussion, and a hopeful sign of ‘joined-up thinking’, these developments did not directly address the issues raised by the college trustees, and until this June little was publicly said about how these requests and plans have developed, with references to them being conspicuously absent from the reports of the bishops’ conference’s general meetings.

One might suspect that the subject was raised during the bishops’ Ad Limina visit to Rome in January, but while this seems likely, it was only in June that it became clear that the trustees’ plans were moving ahead in any respect.

June saw the announcement that Fr Michael Mullaney, vice-president of St Patrick’s College since 2007 and acting president since August 2016, was to become president of the college as a whole for a three-year term, but – and this was a startling and unprecedented development – the trustees said they plan, in time, to look elsewhere to appoint a priest with direct responsibility for the seminary.

Pointing out that St Patrick’s College is home not merely to the national seminary, but to the Pontifical University that offers courses to almost 1,000 students, Archbishop Eamon Martin explained that: “In appointing Fr Mullaney as President for a period of three years, the trustees of the college, in consultation with the relevant congregations of the Holy See, have agreed to revise the governance structures of the college, with particular reference to the seminary and the pontifical university as two interrelated but distinct entities.”

He continued: “Plans for the further development of a vibrant pontifical university, alongside the implementation of the vision for priestly formation set out in the new universal norms The Gift of the Priestly Vocation published by the Congregation for the Clergy last December, have led us to reflect on the complementary but distinct roles and responsibilities of a seminary rector and the president of a pontifical university.

“We have therefore decided to prepare for the appointment in due course of a pro-rector with dedicated responsibility for seminary formation at Maynooth.”

The new pro-rector has yet to be announced, and indeed it seems that the college is currently in need of several other key staff: conspicuous absences from the annual Kalendarium are professors of homiletics and moral theology, and the post of vice-president is also vacant following Fr Mullaney’s promotion.

It would appear that many questions about how Maynooth is to be organised, staffed and run have yet to be answered.


In this light, November’s conference looks remarkably timely. Indeed, intended to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Pastores Dabo Vobis, St John Paul’s 1992 exhortation on the formation of priests in the present day, it’s a timely conference given vocational figures not merely in Ireland but across the whole global Church.

While it’s well known that the number of priests worldwide declined dramatically in the 1970s, what’s not often recognised is the extent to which a recovery began under St John Paul, continuing into the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Annual global seminarian figures stood at 63,882 when the Polish Pontiff was elected in 1978, reaching 114,439 by 2005, the year of his death, and continuing to rise to 120,616 in 2011.

Since then, however, it looks as though vocational numbers have been slipping year on year, to judge by the Annuarium Statistic Ecclesiae – the Vatican’s statistical yearbook of the Church – which shows numbers dropping four years in a row, with there only being 116,843 seminarians worldwide in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available.

If these figures aren’t enough to bother Irish Catholics, one figure probably should do the trick: even with this decline, there are 90.1 seminarians for every million Catholics around the world.

Last year’s census suggests that about 3.71 million people in the Republic self-identify as Catholics, with there being over 730,000 self-identifying Catholics in Northern Ireland. With upwards of 4.44 million people in Ireland identifying as Catholic, one would have expected that just going by global averages, the country would have about 400 clergy in formation.

The real figure, of course, is not even a quarter of this. Last year the national seminary had just 39 resident students, down from 56 the previous year and 65 the year before that. Even when we allow for those seminarians in the Irish College in Rome, St Malachy’s College in Belfast, and the various student houses for the Dominicans, the Capuchins and others, it seems unlikely that there are more than 100 students in formation for the Church in Ireland.


To judge by raw numbers, Maynooth seems to be in terminal decline, such that a ‘reboot’ of some sort seems necessary there, and across the Irish vocational scene in general, especially given how it appears that vocational declines elsewhere in the English-speaking world look to have been stemmed.

In England and Wales, for instance, a general decline in ordinations to the diocesan priesthood set in during the 1980s.

This was disguised in part by an influx of formerly Anglican clergy in the 1990s, but by the turn of the century the decline was impossible to hide: numbers collapsed from 84 in 1999 to 33 the following year, dropping steadily to 2008, when only 15 men were ordained to the secular priesthood.

Since then, however, the story has been very different, with numbers gradually rising to 39 diocesan ordinations in 2013. Numbers fell back to 22 the following year, but since then have been broadly stable, with – leaving aside the formerly Anglican seminarians of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham – 24 and 18 new priests for the dioceses of England and Wales in 2015 and 2016, with 26 priests expected to be ordained this year, 27 next year, and 26 in 2019.

Seminary entry figures tell a similar story: while in 2001, just 22 men began formation for the diocesan priesthood in England and Wales, 40 or more did so during each year of Pope Benedict’s papacy with 53 doing so in 2013. Since then numbers have slipped – to 48, then 45, and more worryingly to 30 in 2016.


Similarly, while just 10 men across England and Wales entered formation for the priesthood in religious orders in 2003, since 2009 the average number of entrants each year has been over 22, with 29 men beginning formation last year.

North of the British border there are signs that a similar story might be in the offing, with 12 men being ordained to the Scottish diocesan priesthood this year, a number not seen in Scotland since 1997.

Over the past 20 years the average number of annual ordinations has been five, but it is understood that this figure is not level: it tended towards three or four per year for a long time and six or seven has been the norm in more recent years.

“On top of that there seems to be a general rise in the number of men approaching our vocations directors to apply for seminary,” Bishop John Keenan, President of Priests for Scotland, told The Scottish Catholic Observer, thanking those in daily rosary groups who’d been praying for vocations and praising Scotland’s vocation directors for “putting together new structures with fresh ideas, through social media and monthly get-togethers and the like, to help identify and accompany those who feel God calling them. We can see this good work beginning to pay off.”

Making the Scottish and Anglo-Welsh figures particularly interesting is how they compare with those in Ireland: Scottish government figures suggest that up to 840,000 people in Scotland are Catholic, while according to Prof. Stephen Bullivant of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society in St Mary’s University, Twickenham, about 3.8 million people across England and Wales self-identify as Catholic.

With roughly 4.4 million self-identifying Catholics across the island of Ireland, one might expect there to be 30 diocesan ordinations in Ireland this year if Ireland were to have ordinations proportionate to the number in England and Wales, or 62 if our figures were more like those for Scotland.


Predictably, however, the Church in Ireland can right now merely dream of such figures. According to Maynooth’s Kalendarium, just eight priests were ordained for Irish dioceses between last December and this July, down from 10 last year and 15 in 2015.

Given how few people have been entering the national seminary in recent years – typically about 16 a year for each of the last five years – there is no sign of these figures improving in the immediate future.

Scotland’s bumper figures for this year look tied to a ‘Benedict bounce’ from the 2010 papal visit, with most of this year’s ordinands having entered seminary around the time of the then Pope’s visit to Edinburgh, so an obvious question is whether Ireland could hope to capitalise on a ‘Francis effect’ should the Pontiff visit Ireland for the World Meeting of Families next year.

Catholic will hope and pray for such a boost, of course, but figures from the United States suggest that vocations come above all from the nurturing of a vocational culture.

In the US, where the annual number of priestly ordinations dropped from 771 in 1975 to 442 in 2000, diocesan vocations reached 595 in 2015, with 2016 seeing 548 men ordained and 590 men lined up for ordination this year.


Research for Georgetown University’s Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found last year that most new priests first considered their vocation when they were about 17, with 70% being encouraged towards the priesthood by parish priests, 48% by friends, 46% by parishioners, and 42% by their mothers.

This year’s research found that 82% of the 2017 new priests were encouraged by about four people to answer their vocation, with most first feeling a call to priestly life around 16 and with religious ordinands typically having known their order for about six years before joining. The average age for this year’s ordinands is 34, reflecting a drop in ordination age of about two months a year since 1999.

Almost half of this year’s ordinands attended a Catholic school for at least part of their schooling, with 59% participating in parish religious education programmes lasting an average of seven years, and 47% having participated in ‘come and see’ weekends at their seminary or religious institute.


Simple encouragement, then, not least from priests themselves, clearly plays a big role in helping people try to answer God’s call. Priests and other Catholics should perhaps ask themselves whether they are doing this – or whether they are doing the opposite.

The US figures suggest that 30% of ordinands are born outside the US, 8% are converts and 35% have a relative who is a priest or a religious; while Ireland has few converts to draw from, given how many Irish people now are from Polish or other families, it looks as though serious questions need to be asked about the extent to which our immigrant families are integrated into the mainstream Church here and whether future seminarians might come from the ‘new Irish’.

Strikingly, 70% of US ordinands had served as altar servers, with 53% being readers at Mass, and 17% having attended World Youth Day; 73% report regularly praying the rosary before entering seminary and the same number participating in Eucharistic adoration ahead of entry.

The Irish Catholic reported last week on how a third of this year’s new Irish priests – secular and religious – had had Legion of Mary connections, and links with Youth 2000 have often been noted, so it looks as though thought needs to be given to the extent to which new movements, traditional devotions, and the application of Church teaching in the streets draw people towards priestly devotions.

Such data will be vital in building our own culture of vocation in Ireland, and if our new National Office for Vocations can gather similar data here, it should be possible to help Ireland’s youth once again hear God’s call to the priesthood. If November’s conference in Maynooth pays off, our national seminary may yet look like a credible place to try to discern that call.