UCA News
William Grimm, a native of New York City, is a missioner and presbyter who since 1973 has served in Japan, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Thoughts on a priest shortage
Published: August 13, 2008 01:47 PM
Thoughts on a priest shortage

The Japanese magazine Yomiuri Weekly reported on July 20 the number of priests in Japan dropped about 82 percent from 1970 to 2005. When that period began, the country had about 1.6 million priests, but now only about 300,000.

The article goes on to mention that 30 percent of priests now serve multiple communities, some ministering to as many as seven or eight.

Since Japan is home to fewer than 440,000 Japanese Catholics, the numbers obviously do not refer to Catholic priests.

The article, titled Otera ga nakunaru! (The temples are disappearing!), shows how the decline in the number of Buddhist priests in Japan is leading to the closing of temples throughout the country.

It cites figures from the government´s Agency for Cultural Affairs showing that the number of Buddhist temples has dropped from 96,000 to 86,000. As aging priests die or retire, the rate of decline will grow even steeper since there are few younger priests to succeed them. 

The New York Times (July 14, 2008) carried an article with the even more dire title, In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out.

We are used to hearing and worrying about the Catholic clergy shortage. In the same 35-year period mentioned in the Yomiuri Weekly article, the Catholic Church in Japan experienced a 20-percent decline in the number of priests -- from 1,926 to 1,542.

So, by some measures, we actually are better off than the major traditional religion of Japan, though this is not much comfort in the face of our own problems.

What Buddhism faces in Japan puts our Catholic situation, and some of the proposed responses, into a new perspective.

Two solutions offered for the Church´s shortage of priests are a married clergy and better inculturation. The situation of Buddhism indicates that those suggestions, while valid for other reasons, will not solve our problems.

One unusual feature of Buddhism in Japan is that its priests are married. In fact, caring for a temple is usually a "family business," with responsibility passing from father to son. Part of the reason for the decline in temple priests is the reluctance of priests´ sons to follow in their fathers´ footsteps, especially in rural areas where the young have left for life in the city and temple affiliation is dropping below 300 families, considered the minimum to support a temple, its priest and his family.

Powerful trends in society that cannot be countered by having a married clergy are at work. It is unlikely that simply having a married Catholic clergy will be any more successful than Buddhism in facing those trends.

Much of the talk of inculturation for the Church in Japan presents Buddhist meditation, liturgy, architecture, etc. as models for what we should be doing.

While there are certainly reasons to de-Westernize Catholicism, it is not so clear that adopting Buddhist styles and practices will achieve much for us. After all, they are not working for Buddhism itself, as more and more people, especially in the cities, lose interest in what for more than a millennium has helped define traditional Japanese culture.

When I returned to Japan after some years away and was wondering in what sort of activities to engage, a Japanese Catholic told me, "Whatever you do, don´t get into religious archeology, caught up in Zen and other ancient religious forms. Look at Japan as it is today and find ways to proclaim the Gospel in this day and age."

His point, confirmed by the Yomiuri and Times articles, was that the days of Buddhism as an expression of Japan are ending as the nation becomes increasingly post-religious.

The decline of Buddhism is partly due to its failure to take bold steps to present itself to Japanese society as it actually exists today. Perhaps complacency based on being the traditional religion and a sense that, for the most part, there was no other option for people, kept Buddhism from responding soon enough to a changing world.

This sounds similar to the situation of Christianity in Europe, including those parts that have been traditionally Catholic.

The situation in Asia is not significantly different. Even here, we seem to hold on to old institutions, styles and structures that, quite frankly, are not very successful in the present and will be even less so in the future.

Can we find a way to be Church that is not archeology, but which actually presents the Gospel in a way that answers the search of men and women in the 21st century and which, by doing so, will call forth ministers for that Gospel proclamation?

Finding a solution is not easy, but it is impossible if we do not grasp the problem. The way to find it is to step away from our institutions, prejudices and "comfort zones" to immerse ourselves in the hopes, fears and doubts of people around us.

Laity, in particular, must develop the spiritual and intellectual tools to understand and respond, and the clergy must aid them in that development.

Buddhism may have lost its chance to speak to the hearts of Japanese in the 21st century. Will the Church be ready to take up that challenge? 

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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