In France, the number of ordinations has fallen from last year’s 133 to 114 this year. 82 of the ordained priests belong to a diocese. 58 out of the 96 French dioceses had no ordinations this year.
According to La Croix, 20% of this year’s new priests come from communities classed as “traditional” or “classical.” Priests of the Society of St Pius X are not included in these statistics. “Previously, we based ourselves principally on the criterion of incardination (that is, the attachment of the priest to a diocese),” a spokesperson of the Episcopal Conference of France (CEF) said.
“This year, we have given priority to the grassroots reality, counting priests who are effectively present in the dioceses,” the official continued.
Similarly, “members of certain congregations, such as the Vincentians and Eudists, have a community life, but are not properly speaking religious; so we have not counted them as such,” the CEF spokesperson said.
Dominique Rey, 59, bishop of Fréjus-Toulon in the Var department of France since 2000, has been active in promoting “new evangelisation” by working with different religious communities, whether French or foreign, large or small. These may be charismatic, traditionalist or missionary, active in worship, prayer or explicit evangelisation – for instance by going door-to-door or being present on beaches and in nightclubs.
They include Heart’s Home, the Points-Coeur Community, the John Paul II Missionary Fraternity and the Missionaries of the Blessed Sacrament. Not everyone agrees with the strategy but it has led to the ordination of large numbers of priests compared with most French dioceses, where ageing priests and a shortage of new ones are the norm. Bishop Rey’s diocese has 210 priests with an average age of 54.
According to the French Bishops’ Conference, only 96 diocesan priests ordained in 2012, compared with 106 in 2011. In June, the bishop of Fréjus-Toulon ordained 12 priests, seven of whom will work for his own diocese. The others will return to their communities or go abroad.
Along with Paris, your diocese is the only one to ordain so many priests. How do you explain that?
My predecessors sought out people with vocations elsewhere. Some people thought that a risky enterprise, but I went for it and built up the presence of these new communities to enrich our diocese. We now have about 50 such communities, 25 of which train priests.
Whatever their origin, the future priests receive the same fundamental training in the diocesan seminary, which takes in 80 seminarians including a dozen from our own diocese. We help to get them familiar with the diocese, which means more than just taking French lessons. Their specific identity and charisma are taken into account.
Today young people select a seminary in the way they would a business school, via the internet. That approach mirrors what is happening in civil society, where people go in for networking and global exchanges.
Some of your colleagues consider your choice is just about numbers and could be risky for your diocese. What is your assessment of that?
People are always suspicious of anything that upsets their habits and right-thinking ways. Time will tell, give us 20 or 30 years! There has been a sharp decline in religious vocations in Europe. If we want to create a new impetus we need new resources. Installing a new community in a parish can inject life into it, on condition that it’s not perceived as something forced on people.
My diocese is quite dynamic and there has been less of a decline in religious practice and the number of children taking catechism than elsewhere, but we are aware that the more diversified the clergy, the more we have to work to avoid simply juxtaposing different chapels. Views may differ, but we share the same fundamentals.
You are promoting new evangelisation by increasing the Church’s presence in Muslim neighbourhoods. How is that working out?
One component of new evangelisation has consisted of setting up a community of traditionalist priests in a city neighbourhood with a majority Muslim population. Some of the priests were trained in the Muslim culture. Evangelisation should not equate provocation; it can be carried out tactfully by meeting people. Such meetings can lead to a questioning and sometimes to a path that may lead to baptism, but our goal is not statistics. In a secularised society where the Christian presence has been all but wiped out, the important thing is to confer some visibility on Christianity again. Faith is not just something personal; it should also have a collective manifestation.
The Church must be a sign to those outside of it. We need to put specific tools in place according to the public we are reaching out to, whether it’s a first circle of Christians, or “seasonal Christians,” or those furthest away from Catholicism.