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Taking a vow

April 7, 2010

The cases of sexual abuse in Germany have been wide-spread and date back decades. As a result, the image of priests in Germany has suffered, and fewer young men are pursuing a life devoted to God as a priest.

Florian Regner at a pulpit
Florian Regner is one of a dwindling number of priest candidates in GermanyImage: Anja Seiler

The rash of sexual abuse cases to emerge in the Catholic Church recently has seriously damaged the church’s reputation. In Germany, hundreds of people have come forward with their stories of abuse by members of the church, often from their time as children in private monastery schools.

As a result, fewer people are choosing to devote their lives to God as priests. According to statistics published on the German Conference of Bishops' website, the number of new priest candidates (in West and East Germany combined) was on the rise in the late 1970s and early 80s, peaking in 1983 with 829 candidates.

A Priest swings incense
Fewer candidates are taking the vows of priesthoodImage: Bilderbox

Just before German reunification in 1990, the numbers started to fall, and the trend has continued. In 2008, the last year in which data is available, just 243 candidates for priesthood were recorded in Germany. 2004 was the lowest year on record, with just 210.

The exceptions to the rule

Men like Florian Regner, a 34 year old from Munich are the exception. Regner is in the fifth of seven years at the Saint Nikolaus Parish seminary school.

Like many students, Regner's day is a bustling mix of lectures, seminars, and presentations, with meals mixed in when there's time. He also has regular prayer sessions, the first of which is at 6:30 in the morning.

People who know Regner weren't surprised at his decision to become a priest. As a child, he was an alter boy and a member of a Catholic youth group. Before he made the decision to devote his life to God, Regner worked as a nurse in a Christian hospital in Munich, in addition to pursuing a theology degree.

"I like the clerical structure of the day, the spiritual life and of course living together with the other students," Regner said. "Seeing other people going through joy and pain, highs and lows… it shows that you're not on this path towards priesthood by yourself. You go with other people, and you can strengthen and inspire each other."

The issue of celibacy

Some say it's the outdated traditions of the church that are driving people away from the priesthood, including the vow of celibacy Catholic priests are required to make.

Calls for reform in the Catholic Church, including the abolishment of the celibacy vow, are becoming louder. However, that's taking things too far for Franz Josef Baur, head of the Saint Nikolaus seminary. To him, the education of priests in Germany is right on track.

"It's not like things have been at a stand still in recent years," he said. "The cases that are now getting lots of attention were already known, and are already pretty old. In the past 20 or 30 years, priest training has been further developed."

Celibacy a 'part of the priesthood'

Seminary candidate Florian Regner doesn't have a solution for early recognition of paedophilic behaviour, but he doesn't think there's connection between the abuse cases and the celibate life of a priest.

Florian Regner
Florian RegnerImage: Anja Seiler

"To automatically make a binding connection between the two is something I don't consider to be very fair," he said. "It's a little far-fetched, actually, because no one can say that [a priest's] lifestyle positively leads to that kind of behaviour. I don't consider that conclusive and comprehensive. For me, a celibate life is just part of the priesthood."

Pope Benedict XVI has yet to take a position regarding the sexual abuse cases in his home-country of Germany. But until then, not much will change for candidates of seminary schools in Munich, and Florian Regner will still want to become a priest.

Author: Anja Seiler (mz)
Editor: Rob Turner

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