Poland is in the grip of a “true vocations crisis”, but the country is still home to one-in-four new priests in Europe, statistics have shown.

– More men joining the priesthood… but more men leaving it too

Citing Polish Institute for Catholic Church Statistics numbers, Catholic website Deon.pl reported that Poland has been reponsible for 26% of all new priests in Europe over the last few years, with about 350 men being ordained annually in the country, according to Notes from Poland.

In 2017 – the last year for which statistics are avaiable – a total of 1,272 men were ordained to the priesthood on the continent, while the number of new priests worldwide in the same year reached 5,800.

But the apparent boom in vocations in Poland is deceiving, with the overall trend of men in the ranks of the clergy on a downward slide.

In Europe, the number of priests overall has fallen from 141,000 in 2003 to 132,000 in 2011 and to 125,000 in 2017.

Poland has not been an exception to that overall decline, with the number of priests in the country also on the way down.

While Poland is still home a quarter of Europe’s new vocations, it’s also home to half of the men who give up the ministry each year on the continent.

In Europe in 2017, some 146 priests hung up their cassocks for good, with 73 hailing from Poland.

In 2012, the number of Polish clergy giving up the priesthood was 54: around the average number of men abandoning the ministry in the period between 2000 and 2017 but accounting at that point for just a quarter of Europe’s failed priestly vocations.

– “Certainly part is demography… but perhaps we should also look at ourselves”

The situation in Poland in male and female religious orders hardly varies from that of the diocesan clergy.

Female religious orders have suffered a decline from 566 new postulants in 2000 to just 177 in 2017, while male orders have faced a similar situation over the same time frame.

“We have often wondered why we do not attract more [vocations]”, admitted Mother Jolanta Olech SJK, secretary general of the Conference of Major Superiors of Female Religious Orders.

“Certainly part of the reason for the fall in vocations is demography, cultural changes and a decline in faith, especially among the young.

“But perhaps we should also look at ourselves… Perhaps it should be an incentive to us to, as Pope Francis says, go into the margins…and look for those who nobody looks for”, the nun acknowledged.

For his part, Father Janusz Sok, head of the Conference of Major Superiors of Male Orders, denied Deon.pl’s talk of a “catastrophic” vocations crisis, playing down the downward trends in religious life as more of a “return to the situation from the past”.

– A crisis of confidence in the Church

Mother Jolanta is correct in pointing up as the reasons for the vocations plunge in Poland to demography, a decline of faith among the young and a lack of trust in the Church, mostly for the sex abuse crisis and the Church’s perceived political and social interference.

A 2018 Pew Research survey found that only 26% of Poles under 40 go to Church every Sunday, while a September 2019 Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) report found that just 7% of young urban Poles between the ages of 16-34 “fully trust” the Church.

The Pew and ZOiS numbers are consistent with those that came out of a January 2020 poll from the IBRiS opinion research institute that revealed that just 39.5% of Poles trust the Catholic Church.

That was a plunge of over 13% in trust levels in a little over two years, from September 2017, in what IBRiS pollsters noted was the greatest loss of confidence in the period in the ten social institutions for which they asked Poles their opinion.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.