The greatest gains came under John Paul II. In 1978, the year Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, vocations worldwide totaled 63,882. In 2005, the year he died, they totaled 114,439. The numbers continued to rise during the reign of Benedict XVI: Vocations reached their modern peak in 2011, with 120,616—an increase of 6,177 since the papal transition year. After 2011, they drifted downward: to 120,051 in 2012, and 118,251 in 2013, the year of Benedict’s resignation. Thus, vocations in 2013 were down 2,365 from their height under Benedict, and up 3,812 from their height under John Paul.Yet the problem is less the decline than the reason for it. It has been presumed that the decline is due to the resurgence of the progressive wing of Roman Catholicism under Pope Francis. It seems that Rome is keeping a watchful eye on those religious orders that might be described as traditional in doctrine and worship. Their sin seems to be that these also tend to be the dioceses and religious orders that foster religious vocations and in which priestly vocations have either increased faster than the other wings of Rome or failed to decline.
In March 2013, Pope Francis emerged from the conclave as the new ruler of the Church. Data suggest that his pontificate has not accelerated the decline in vocations from their height in 2011, but has not reversed or arrested it, either. In 2015 there were 116,843 seminarians—a drop of 1,408 from 2013. If this rate of decline continues, then in a year or two vocations will be roughly where they were when John Paul died. Yet we will actually be in worse shape than we were then. As Catholics grow more numerous worldwide, the Catholics-per-priest ratio worsens. For instance, there were 2,900 Catholics per priest worldwide in 2010, and 3,091 in 2015.
In 2016, there was just one new seminarian in Munich, the historic capital city of German Catholicism. In Belgium, the situation is perhaps still worse. In 2016, there was not a single new Francophone seminarian in the country.
In other words, it is more important to have the right kind of seminarian (progressive) than it is to have seminarians. . . or it is better to suppress vocations from those quarters less friendly to the liturgical changes in the wake of Vatican II.
Lutherans might watch with some concern here. We face the same kinds of tensions between those who take doctrine and worship seriously and those who find it merely a means to an end (whatever works at the moment is the best). While we are not nearly in the troubled circumstance of Rome with respect to the numbers of seminarians, we have seen our own numbers decline (though perhaps for other reasons than worship wars). Yet the vitality of the Church always lies with those who take worship most seriously, whose faith and life flows naturally from and back to the means of grace, and who expect that this is or should be the norm for all within the church.