Getting real: Vocations Sunday by the numbers

Vocations Sunday

The call for vocations to the priesthood on Vocations Sunday is one we have heard for many years as the worsening picture of recruitment reveals itself.

The numbers show the extent of the crisis we are facing.

When I entered the seminary 40 years ago, I was one of 19 aspirants. Two of us were ordained from that group, one a year or so before me, and I am the only one still practising.

My ordination year group numbered five because of changes and circumstances and the blending of year groups. Of that group, one is already dead, one has left the ministry, one is retired, and two are practising as parish priests.

It is not a new or original story, and many priests can recall this sort of experience.

This Sunday is Vocations Sunday, traditionally an opportunity to promote and pray for priests. Local vocations across New Zealand, these days are rare. Local vocations in the Palmerston North Diocese are even rarer.

Some say when telling a story follow the numbers.

  • Total number of parishes in the Palmerston North diocese where a priest is resident: 14
  • All except the Cathedral, Waitara and Wairoa serve multiple communities e.g. New Plymouth 6 communities, Hastings 4 etc.
  • Total number of communities served: 44
  • Total number of priests working in parishes: 24
  • Total number of priests belonging to Palmerston North Diocese working in parishes: 14
  • Total number of priests from other dioceses, countries, and religious congregations working in parishes: 10
  • Of these, 2 priests come from other dioceses, 4 from other countries and 8 are priests from religious orders.

Priests by Province

Taranaki: 5

Whanganui: 2

Marton, Taihape, Central Plateaux: 1

Manawatu: 6

Tararua: 1

Hawkes Bay (Central, Hastings, Napier): 7

Wairoa: 2

Total 24 (Priests living but not working in parishes are not included.)

Priests in parishes by age

70 years plus: 7 priests – all New Zealand born

50 years plus: 12 priests – 9 New Zealand born

40-50 years: 3 priests – all born in India

younger than 40:  2 priests – all born in Vietnam


1 in training. Currently in Vietnam. Post-Covid is waiting to come back to New Zealand with a student visa.

3 currently in Vietnam waiting to come to New Zealand to being seminary study.

The Vocation Reality

The shortage of priestly vocations can be approached in various ways. Is it a crisis? Is it the work of the Holy Spirit?

Traditionally vocations to the priesthood are fostered in families and is a matter that generally rests with Catholic families. So the question is: Do parents not want their sons to be priests or do they not want them to be priests as the priesthood is currently lived?

In very recent times we have all been aware of not being able to join the local community for Mass, weddings, funerals and baptisms. Fostering vocations from within the diocese is an important consideration so to keep or even improve the present level of service, parish communities and the whole diocese functioning.

As well as fostering vocations within the diocese, on the face of it, there are four other possible solutions.

The first solution is to import priests for parishes and students for seminary study.

These men and seminarians come from vastly different religious cultures to our own and our expectations are that whatever culture they come from they will be able to operate in a highly secular culture and in a western philosophical and theological tradition. Many are not prepared for this or even understand it, but it keeps the status quo afloat.

The second solution is to ordain married men as priests.

Some contend that married men should be ordained and that this is the solution to all our problems. They suggest that there are plenty of indigenous vocations that lie untapped.

While married men could be ordained if we use this solution as the Orthodox Churches do, but it would require significant changes in the way we train, remunerate and shift priests around various parishes.

The third solution is the ordination of viri probati, respected men. This will likely require some ‘on the job’ theology and scripture training. Not impossible, but not without issue, it will however keep the community functioning.

Solution four argues for the equality of women in the life of the church and calls forth women’s ministry in a profoundly new way. Ordaining women is not a universal solution, however,  and one that the Universal Church does not hold as valid or possible.

So, why are there no vocations to the priesthood?

In order to answer this question in a synodal context we would have to ask two questions:

First, what is the “why” of priesthood in a modern age that is missing or hard to see? This is the “value” proposition of priesthood.

Second, what is the “how” of priesthood and why is it not attracting people? How is priesthood currently expressed, lived or performed in a modern, secular age and society?

If we don’t know what the “problem” is and why it exists, how can we know the solution?

  • Joe Grayland is a theologian and a priest of the Diocese of Palmerston North. His latest book is: Liturgical Lockdown. Covid and the Absence of the Laity (Te Hepara Pai, 2020).

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