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Philippa Martyr: The stats tell the story on priestly ordinations

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Since 1970 Australia has ordained just over 1500 priests. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Since 1970 Australia has ordained just over 1500 priests. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Did you know that we’ve ordained nearly 1500 priests in Australia in the last 50 years? I didn’t know this until I got an email from Jamie Wright, a journalist at The Australian.

Jamie didn’t know it either. He just asked if he could pick my brains for an article he was writing on three ordinations happening in Brisbane on 29 June this year.

So I went to the online Australian Catholic Directory and went through year by year, starting with 1970. These numbers aren’t the last word, but for the most part I think they tell a very interesting story.

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Let’s start with the big numbers. It’s nearly 1500 since 1970—but that’s a combination of diocesan priests and religious priests (those who belong to religious orders). There’s been just over a thousand diocesan priests ordained, and just over 400 religious priests.

Religious priestly numbers have really fallen, but there’s been a gentle U shape in the number of diocesan priests. In the 1970s we ordained on average around 25 diocesan priests a year, which fell to 19 in the 1990s.

This led to a sense of real crisis in the church in Australia, with dire predictions about the loss of the priesthood altogether. It’s the time when unhelpful ideas like ordaining women as priests took hold of some people’s imaginations and never let go.

In 2000, Australia ordained 28 diocesan priests in one year, which was amazing. But the average was just 16 per year between 2000-2009, for a total of 161 diocesan priests.

Then between 2010-2019, the average went back up to 21 per year, with 213 new diocesan priests in that decade.

So far in the 2020s, we seem to be doing okay – 19 a year on average, and that’s not counting the ones happening this year.

Melbourne is in the lead currently with 169 diocesan ordinations since 1970, then Sydney with 135, then little Perth punching well above its weight with 123, and finally Brisbane with 89.

These four dioceses account for just under half of all diocesan priestly ordinations in Australia. This makes sense because they also have the biggest massgoing Catholic populations.

Priests come out of families, and usually families who practise their faith. We know that in 2016, around half of all the practising Catholics in Australia lived in just four archdioceses—Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth.

Deacon Ravi
Bishop Columba Macbeth-Green embraces the new ordained Deacon Muvvala. PHOTO: Tricia Ward

The other thing that’s happened over the same period, of course, is that the number of Catholics attending Mass has dropped.

In 2001, around 765,000 Catholics went to Mass on Sundays, but by 2016 this had fallen to just 623,000.

So our clergy numbers don’t have to stretch as far as they used to. In 2006, Sydney had 103,310 massgoing Catholics, and around 520 priests (half diocesan, half religious).

That’s one priest per around 200 massgoing Catholics. That’s just one decent Sunday Mass congregation that wouldn’t break anyone’s back.

In 2016, it was 93,365 people, and about 493 priests, which is even lower than 2011—one priest per 190 Catholics.

I also looked at the smaller regional NSW diocese of Lismore. In 2006 they had one priest for every 215 massgoing Catholics, but by 2016 it had fallen to 1 per 152 massgoing Catholics.

Of course, in real life it looks very different. Fr Joel Urban is dead on his feet ministering to his enthusiastic Sunday congregation of 800 with youth ministry, a mothers’ group, a men’s group, a busy RCIA ministry, and the annual fundraising fete.

Meanwhile, Fr Matt Rural drives for hours to say Mass once a month for three migrant workers in Benighted, NSW, 2880. They’re hugely grateful to see him, but he has to ask his family and friends to chip in for the petrol money.

Fr Joel and Fr Matt are both doing it tough. So is Fr Aloysius Grump, still parish priest of St Arthritis at the age of 80, where one person for every year of his age attends Sunday Mass.

His assistant priest Fr Ethan Youngtrad is still giving first blessings. Meanwhile, his bishop can’t decide what to do with St Arthritis and all the other little suburban parishes like it.

The Plenary Council was the place to have a robust discussion about this, and about other ways to future-proof the church in Australia. We wasted that opportunity, and spent a lot of money doing so.

But perhaps the Synod might be open to hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit—who I am pretty certain can speak through numbers as well as words.

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