VATICAN CITY -- The relaxing of religious repression in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe has led to a boom in the number of young men wanting to enter the priesthood, according to bishops gathered for the Roman Catholic Church's eighth synod.
In Poland, East Germany, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine, the demand for admission to seminaries is so high that church authorities say they are providing only the most rudimentary training in some places.
For the first time in the synod's 25-year history, bishops, archbishops and cardinals from Eastern Europe have been among the nearly 250 delegates taking part in the Roman Catholic Church's month-long conference, which this year is focusing on the problems of training priests.
Since the synod opened on Oct. 1, speakers have repeatedly said the shortage of priests in many parts of the West will worsen unless the image of the priest in the public eye is enhanced.
A detailed breakdown of the numbers of trainee priests in Eastern Europe is still unavailable, but Vatican figures show that if the number of young men taking orders worldwide is rising, it is almost entirely because of new enrollments in the developing world and the former Soviet satellite states.
In 1988, according to the most recent statistics available, the number of seminarians in the United States dropped to just under 7,000, Vatican officials said.
By contrast, Poland produced 8,457 trainee priests in 1988, more than any other single European country.
"In many parts of Eastern Europe, the number of vocations is at the level that it used to be in the West before the priestly life here began suffering from such a lack of esteem," said Archbishop John Bukosky, who is one of the Vatican's experts on Eastern Europe.
"Even so, while in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania the numbers are increasing all the time, it is no longer the case in Hungary or Yugoslavia. Hungary is already a westernized country. Ten years ago, Yugoslavia had a surplus of priests. Now they don't have enough."
In many of the other formerly communist-controlled countries, bishops report a desperate lack of the most basic tools for preparing seminarians to take holy orders.
"The communists closed all the seminaries," said Cardinal Lubachivski, head of the Ukraine's Roman Catholic community. "During the persecution, candidates were taught by the elder members of the clergy. There were no books, often not even the Bible. Sometimes, there were no pens or paper. Now in Leopoli in the Ukraine, we have more than 300 seminarians, but we have no building, no teacher and no books."
The lack of qualified teaching staff poses one of the most serious problems, according to Archbishop Stephen Sulyk, also Ukrainian, but living in exile in Philadelphia. His suggestion is to send young seminarians to the West for their training.
"We have the seminarians. You have the seminaries, but they are empty," Sulyk told his Western colleagues.
At the end of Pope John Paul II's historic trip to Czechoslovakia in April, the pontiff announced there would be a special European synod, probably next fall. According to Archbishop Bukosky, the meeting will aim to work out concrete ways of how the West can help rebuild the East's Catholic Church.
Priests in the West, meanwhile, have problems of their own. "It's harder to be a priest in the 1990s because of the change in world values and because of the decline in numbers," said the Rev. Kevin Doyle, a Washington-based priest.
"There is more work to do and so priests get very tired. In the U.S. there are about 50 dioceses out of a total of 185 where some parishes have to have Sunday celebrations without a priest," Doyle said.
Said Bishop John Marshall of Burlington, Vt.: "Numbers are declining because we are dealing with materialism and consumerism and a very self-centered world. The need to be materially successful and to have position and possessions puts a lot of pressure on young people. The way to encourage vocations is to have happy priests, and perhaps some of ours don't seem that happy. A priest probably seems to be someone who is very busy, often tired, with no time for recreation. What we need is to present a better image of the priesthood."