FLORENCE, Italy (ChurchMilitant.com) - The enduring problem of the vocation crisis in the Catholic Church has again reared its ugly head, this time in the heart of Western Catholic culture, in the archdiocese of Florence.
Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, archbishop of Florence, has recently announced that his diocesan seminary did not receive a single application to the priestly formation program this year, possibly for the first time in decades. The cardinal avowed this as "one of the deepest wounds of my episcopate."
The news was delivered during the cardinal's last press conference of 2020, where he also commented on some of the pandemic effects in the archdiocese, noting that parishes are under a much heavier load because of "the plunge in donations we suffered in 2020. Our poor boxes are practically empty."
This is an indicator of both the economic annihilation caused by draconian control measures and also of the astounding drop in Mass attendance after the pandemic started, a phenomenon which still lacks official figures but has already been acknowledged and analyzed by many members of the laity, the clergy and by bishops from all over Italy.
Betori described the vocational crisis as a "truly tragic situation," adding that in 2020 he didn't ordain any priests, while there's only one ordination expected for 2021, coming from a Redemptoris Mater seminary — a diocesan seminary operating under the sponsorship of the Neocatechumenal Way.
Confirming what has been broadly observed for many years — traditional orders that cherish Church teaching are booming — the international seminary of the Institute of Christ the King counterpoints the situation in the Florentine archdiocese. The seminary and motherhouse of the institute, located in Pontassieve, a municipality of the city of Florence, is currently the home of more than 90 seminarists from all over the world.
In 2020 alone, Cdl. Raymond Burke ordained in Florence 10 priests from the institute and 11 in 2015. The thriving society, founded in 1990 by Msgr. Gilles Wach and Fr. Philippe Mora in Gabon, operates in more than 50 dioceses worldwide, and a fundamental part of their charism is the use of Traditional Latin Liturgy.
Despite Cdl. Betori's words of concern, the archdiocese of Florence under his leadership has been showing signs of going astray. In 2017, for instance, the archbishop stirred controversy for negotiating the sale of a two-acre archdiocesan property to an Islamic association that planned to have a mosque built right in front of a 12th-century church in the plot.
This is all inscribed within the certainty of shared principles of religious liberty promoted by the Second Vatican Council. ... I'm proud to show that the Church of Florence respects religious liberty and promotes liberty of worship ... as the transformation of Western societies in multiethnic, multicultural and multi-religious societies ... is the future that ineluctably awaits.
After years of polemic, the sale never actually went through, allegedly because the Islamic association dismissed the deal.
The reasons behind the withdrawal were never publicly disclosed; the newspaper Firenze Today called it "a mystery."
In 2018, while the archdiocese was still under fire for negotiating the sale of Catholic property to Muslims, Florence hosted two Islamic art exhibitions, both of which were blessed by the director of the Uffizi Galleries Eike Schmidt, who even declared that his wish was to soon see in the city "a beautiful mosque, equal in beauty to Florence's Cathedral."
The significance of these exhibitions in the art capital of Europe could be assessed by the presence of art collector and Qatar's sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who attended both of them.
Regarding the prevailing tone of these art shows, Catholic daily The New Daily Compass called the "overlap of the Florentine Renaissance with the contribution of an Islam that in the same period" was ravaging Europe "is an offense to history."
Florence's Catholic roots are increasingly being neglected. Over the last few years, due to internal conflicts within the Florentine Dominican Order and the indifference of the authorities — ecclesiastical and civil — the convent of San Marco, one of the most important historical sites of Florence, was closed.
The religious complex, rebuilt by Michelozzo in the 15th century, is a Renaissance icon that had been guarded by the Dominican Order for over 600 years, and when the last four friars were ordered to move out, the convent was left abandoned.
Home to many geniuses and illustrious figures such as Dominican painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola, San Marco was once described by former mayor of Florence and Ven. Giorgio La Pira as the "center of the world."
Even though San Marco is indisputably acknowledged as a treasure of Western history, apparently nothing was done to save it from oblivion.
Historian and art critic Carlo Franza, giving a thorough account of the matter for newspaper Il Giornale, writes that "all the prayers, petitions, protests, appeals to the archbishop of Florence, to cardinals (including Cdl. [Gianfranco] Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture), to the reigning pontiff, it all amounted to nothing."
The church of San Marco remains open solely for infrequent Mass celebrations, as the friars have to come from another convent. During the rest of the time, San Marco is completely vacant, rendering it vulnerable to thefts, vandalism, meteorological perils, structural collapses, etc.
The Ministry of Cultural Heritage has been startlingly indifferent throughout the entire affair, a situation described by Franza as "utterly negligent ... a shame for the Dominicans, for the diocese, for Florence's administration and for the ministry."
Carlo Franza was supported by fellow historian Silvio Calzolari, who concluded that "one of the glories of the Catholic Church, of the Dominican Order, of Italy, of Florence, is heading towards its sunset because of a few wrong decisions and many, many omissions ... [H]ow scandalous is the idea of suppressing the convent? And how scandalous is the indifference of the authorities on the matter?"
Vatican-watcher Marco Tosatti, in an article denouncing the current state of abandonment of the convent, called the closing of the convent "inexplicable."
The shortage of vocations in the archdiocese of Florence is the natural consequence of the city's general aversion not only to the Church's spiritual legacy, but also to Her historical heritage. Unless a cultural shift takes place, the past of the Catholic Church might be as endangered as Her future.