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Church leaders fret over dwindling vocation in Asia

Rapid economic development in Asia has seen a corresponding decline in vocations in many developing countries
Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, president of the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) celebrates Mass on June 23 during the 80th convention of Serra International in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, president of the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) celebrates Mass on June 23 during the 80th convention of Serra International in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo: Mark Saludes/Serra International) 

Published: June 28, 2023 10:57 AM GMT
Updated: June 28, 2023 12:07 PM GMT

Church leaders have called for collective actions to address issues including economic development, changes in family structure, technological and ideological impact, poverty, and migration that contributes to a decline in priestly and religious vocation in Asia.

"In the last decades of the last century, vocations increased in Asia, but with the new century, the trend changed," said Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, president of the Federation of the Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).

Bo spoke about challenges the church is facing across the world, particularly in Asia, during his keynote address at the 80th convention of Serra International, a global lay apostolate, in Chiang Mai of Thailand on June 22-25.

About 450 vocation animators including priests, religious and laypeople from various countries attended the program.

Bo said that number of vocations in Asia increased in the 1970s and the subsequent 30 years, though the “phenomenon” was not seen across Asia.

However, several countries with higher Catholic populations, such as India, Vietnam, Timor Leste, and the Philippines would nurture more vocation than others, he pointed out.

The archbishop of Yangon said that the number of men and women responding to God’s call has decreased worldwide including in Asia, adding that even countries that once boasted a good number of vocations are seeing a “downward trend.”

“We hear of dioceses that struggle to replace their aging priests and houses of formation downsizing because there are no new people to continue their ministry,” he said.

“Throughout the church’s history, we have seen the decline and revival of vocations. Perhaps we are now at a crossroads where even maintaining the existing numbers is becoming far more challenging now than before,”

Bo presented five major challenges driving the downtrend in priestly and religious vocations.

Rapid economic development in Asia has seen a corresponding decline in vocations in many developing countries, he said, adding that individuals now become “obsessed” with the power of wealth and greed.

“Such a mindset makes individuals think less of generosity and self-giving,” he said.

Changes in family structures, from the traditional family to newer forms of family: single mothers, unmarried couples (cohabitation), working parent families, childless couples, interfaith-intercultural families, and others cause a drop in vocation.  

Such changes result in low birth rates, increasing divorce rates, raising the average age of marriage, single-parent families, and children raised by grandparents in the absence of their working parents, he noted.

“What we used to consider as the norm in the past, today, we see newer challenges. Some of these new challenges are caused by choice, and others out of necessity,” he added.

Besides, poverty and migration that force people to move from one place to another, Bo pointed out that a “lack of role models” among priests and religious also hurt vocations.

“The scandals of sexual abuse, financial misappropriation, abuse of power (clericalism), and corruption that come to light so often in the media do not portray the life of a priest and consecrated man/woman as an attractive way of life. It has become hostile in some places more than others,” he said.

In coming years, there might be a further decline in vocations in today’s socioeconomic and political contexts, but we “cannot sit back and wait for it to happen and only then move towards action,” he insisted.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, insisted that "communion of vocations" can be a new way of evangelization and a strong incentive for vocations. 

"I am convinced that the 'communion of vocations' is a new formula for our times and all cultures, including Asia. This is because individualism, indifference, and loneliness, common features of global culture, are taking hold everywhere, even in Christian environments, through the influence of the media and fashions," the prelate said. 

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, urged Catholics to share stories of vocations to inspire others.

"A Christian vocation is always a mission to share with others our experience of Jesus. It is up to us to continue the story of vocations through our mission. A vocation crisis is often rooted in a missionary crisis," said Tagle.

Serra International is a Vatican-recognized voluntary lay apostolate promoting vocations.

Founded in 1935, it has about 20,000 laymen and laywomen as members in up to 1,109 Serra Clubs across 46 countries.

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