Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler

Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler

(This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Catholic World Report.)

The universal Church has enjoyed spectacular growth in the number of seminarians since 1978. When John Paul II became Pope, there were 63,882 diocesan and religious seminarians studying philosophy and theology. Twenty-four consecutive years of growth brought the number to 112,643. The number fell back slightly to 112,373 in 2003, the last year for which full statistics are available. But that figure is still a 76 percent increase over the number for 1978.

In the midst of this worldwide vocation boom, however, the Church in the United States has suffered a vocation collapse. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the total number of American diocesan and religious seminarians in college and theology seminary programs decreased from 9,021 in 1978 to 4,790 in 2003–a decline of nearly 47 percent.

America’s vocation crisis has been attributed to the culture’s materialism, unchastity, and small family sizes. In a seminal 1995 newspaper column, Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss cited additional ecclesial factors that have contributed to the collapse:
I am personally aware of certain vocation directors, vocation teams, and evaluation boards that turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordaining women or who defend the Church’s teaching about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the Rosary. When there is a determined effort to discourage orthodox candidates from priesthood and religious life, then the vocation shortage which results is caused not by a lack of vocations but by deliberate attitudes and policies which deter certain viable candidates.

In earlier issues of CWR, Leslie Payne ("Salt for Their Wounds," February 1997) and Michael S. Rose ("A Self-Imposed Shortage," February 2001) confirmed the truth of Archbishop Curtiss’s observations.

Rather than provide additional confirmation, this article offers a more mundane statistical look at the state of priestly vocations by examining the ratio of diocesan seminarians to Catholics in the 176 Latin-rite dioceses of the United States (excluding the Archdiocese for the Military Services). Which American dioceses are taking part in the worldwide vocation boom, and which are not? Which dioceses are enjoying dramatic increases in the number of seminarians, and which are suffering from sudden declines? How do bishops, vocation directors, and other diocesan officials account for their dioceses’ success or failure to attract priestly vocations?

Vocation-rich dioceses

The dozen dioceses with the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics, according to statistics published in the 2004 edition of The Official Catholic Directory, are Lincoln, Nebraska; Yakima Washington; Savannah, Georgia; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Rapid City, South Dakota; Wichita, Kansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Alexandria, Louis-iana; Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida; Steubenville, Ohio; Spokane, Washington; and Bismarck, North Dakota.

Officials of the nation’s most vocation-rich dioceses most frequently attribute their success to divine grace given in response to prayer. "Of course we know that it is the work of the Holy Spirit!" writes Bishop Paul Zipfel of Bismarck. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln credits "first and foremost the atmosphere of prayer for vocations and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patroness of the diocese." Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken ascribes "most of the vocational awareness to the Eucharistic adoration that has been happening in the diocese for quite a few years. This contributes, I believe, to the awareness of the call." Tulsa vocation promotion and recruitment director Wayne Rziha credits weekly Eucharistic adoration by Serra Club members. Rapid City vocation director Father Brian Christensen recalls that Bishop Harold Dimmerling, who died in 1987, composed a prayer for vocations that has been recited weekly in every parish since the 1980s.

The holy witness and active interest of diocesan priests in promoting vocations also play a crucial role in the success of vocation-rich dioceses. "A good number of our priests see themselves as associate vocation directors," says Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla, SJ. "There is no better vocations awareness ‘program,’" according to Father Christensen, "than the witness of faithful, dedicated, and joyful men serving Christ and His Church as a committed priest. We are blessed to have many such men serving the people of western South Dakota."

Tulsa’s Wayne Rziha has relied upon "the dedication and commitment of a few vocation-minded priests." He adds: "Priests who build personal relationships with their people and then actively call and invite them to consider a vocation to the priesthood are the pillars of good vocation programs." Bishop Bruskewitz adds that "in the Diocese of Lincoln, as in most other dioceses, there are priests assigned to do vocational work, but for many years, all of the priests of the Lincoln diocese have been required to consider themselves ‘vocation directors’ and to promote the discovery and encouragement of those young people called by God." "If priests are not supportive of vocation promotion, the work of a vocation director is very difficult," cautions Father Darrin Connall, Spokane vocation director and rector of Bishop White Seminary. "Most of our priests are supportive of vocations and willing to invite young men to consider priesthood."

In some vocation-rich dioceses, priestly ministry at high schools and colleges has proved to be of decisive importance. "Young, effective priest-teachers in Catholic high schools are the most impacting and influential factor in priestly vocations," says Bismarck vocation director Father Thomas Richter. Bishop Bruskewitz believes that "the extremely fine pastoral work of the priests of the diocese, particularly in Catholic education and at the campus of the local state university, brings tangible vocational results."

Smaller and more successful

The nation’s 13 most vocation-rich dioceses all have fewer than 200,000 Catholics. The most vocation-rich larger dioceses are Denver (14th), Omaha (30th), Chicago (41st), Atlanta (43rd), and La Crosse, Wisconsin (44th). The most vocation-rich dioceses with more than 500,000 Catholics are Chicago, Washington (63rd), St. Paul and Minneapolis (64th), and Cincinnati (77th). Of dioceses with over 1,000,000 Catholics, only Chicago and Newark (80th) have vocation rates above the national median.

One reason smaller dioceses may be more vocation-rich is that their size allows for greater interaction between bishops and seminarians. Father Wilmar Zabala, ordained for the Diocese of Yakima in 2003, relates:

[Bishop Sevilla] takes time to visit our seminarians, most especially at the seminarian’s year-end evaluation, when there’s a big celebration in the seminary, or simply when he’s in the vicinity of the seminary. He phones the seminarian on his birthday, wishes him a happy birthday, assures him of his continued prayers, and, most importantly, thanks him for studying for the priesthood in the diocese. He always reminds the seminarians that they should not hesitate to call him if they need anything.
Father Steve Angell, ordained for Savannah in 2004, recalls:
At Christmas, Bishop [J. Kevin] Boland sends each of his seminarians a Christmas present, an orthodox book on some aspect of Catholic faith or spirituality. ... Whereas some seminarians from other dioceses have never met their bishop, the seminarians of the Diocese of Savannah know their bishop, and Bishop Boland knows them, long before the day that he places his hands upon their heads.
The vocation directors of vocation-rich dioceses tend to be optimistic and go out of their way to invite young men to consider the priesthood. "Young people today are ready for a challenge and looking for a worthy cause to give their life for," notes Savannah vocation director Father Timothy McKeown. "The vocation to the priesthood meets these needs."

Spokane’s Father Connall says, "My basic approach to recruiting flows from a fundamental belief that God continues to call men to the priesthood in adequate numbers. My job, therefore, is to assist young men to discern that call and to support them once they have responded. The ‘vocation shortage’ has nothing to do with God’s failure to call."

"When a seminarian comes from another country," recounts Father Zabala, "[vocation director] Msgr. John Ecker accompanies him to go shopping for some decent clothes to be used in the seminary. ... Msgr. Ecker constantly invites kids, high school students, and young adults to consider the priesthood." Bishop Zipfel remarks,
We have an attractive (physically and spiritually) young priest who is assigned full time to our vocation work. His plan for the last year is to visit each parish and mission and to preside at all the Sunday Masses and speak about vocations to the priesthood. He has completed about 65 percent of the parishes.
The Dioceses of Yakima and Spokane are particularly successful in attracting Hispanic vocations; nearly half of their seminarians were born in Mexico. Officials of other vocation-rich dioceses say that the vast majority of their seminarians are homegrown. All of Rapid City’s seminarians come from the local area; only one Bismarck seminarian, three Pensacola-Tallahassee seminarians, three Tulsa seminarians, and three or four Cheyenne seminarians come from other dioceses or countries.

Surprisingly, three of the 12 most vocation-rich dioceses do not have the typical full-time priest vocation director that most dioceses employ. Yakima’s Msgr. Ecker is also vicar general and rector of the cathedral; Steubenville’s vocation director is also vicar general, moderator of the curia, finance officer, annual financial campaign director, judicial vicar, and pastor of two parishes. Tulsa’s Rziha is a married layman.

Fidelity to the magisterium and traditional spirituality are strikingly manifest in several vocation-rich dioceses. Bishop Bruskewitz observes that "the orthodoxy, conservatism, and enthusiasm of the clergy, both young and old, bear witness to the splendor of the Catholic priesthood in southern Nebraska. The cheerful conformity of the priests to the magisterial teachings of the Church, to liturgical correctness, and to traditional Church discipline also plays an important part in the diocesan vocation picture." The web site maintained by the Savannah vocation office seeks prospective seminarians who "believe in the truths taught by the Catholic Church," "sometimes attend daily Mass or make visits to the Blessed Sacrament," and "frequently make use of the Sacrament of Confession." (Prospective Savannah seminarians are also expected to "have a normal sexual attraction for adult females.") The Pensacola-Tallahassee vocation director, Msgr. C. Slade Crawford emphasizes, among other factors, "fidelity to the magisterium… and the Catholic classics in faith, spirituality, and prayer; a serious and disciplined dedication to the practice of prayer; true devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Eucharistic Lord; clarity considering the truth of human sexuality; [and] formation in the virtues of chastity, modesty, and the celibate way of life."

At the same time, vocation-rich dioceses may be led by bishops who have not taken "conservative" positions on controversial ecclesial issues. Bishop Skylstad of Spokane, now president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, opposed denying Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians; "I strongly oppose using the Eucharist as a weapon," as he put it. Pensacola-Tallahassee Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, likewise wrote, "It is my position not to encourage or support in any way confrontations in the Communion line before God’s altar with the Sacred Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus. I have a significant concern for the sacred nature of the Holy Eucharist and do not support calling upon ministers of Communion to make judgments about the worthiness of those in the Communion line."

Two weeks before the presidential election, Bishop Joseph Adamec wrote that since both abortion and war entail indiscriminate killing, voting for either candidate would bring "desirable and undesirable consequences" from a pro-life perspective. Bishop Donald Trautman, now chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, has been the American hierarchy’s most vocal critic of the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2001 document Liturgiam authenticam. Bishops Adamec and Trautman lead the Dioceses of Altoona-Johnstown (47th) and Erie (53rd), by far the most vocation-rich dioceses in the northeastern US.

Vocation-poor dioceses

The nation’s dioceses with the lowest ratio of seminarians to Catholics (starting with the bottom-ranked diocese) are Honolulu, Hawaii; San Diego, California; El Paso, Texas; Rockville Centre, New York; Hartford, Connecticut; Santa Rosa, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Paterson, New Jersey; San Bernardino, California; Dallas, Texas; Brooklyn, New York; and Rochester, New York.

Officials of several of these dioceses do not believe that their dioceses are particularly vocation-poor. "Personally I believe that we are doing well with vocations," says Father Bede Wevita, director of information, communications, and media for the Diocese of Las Vegas. Paterson vocation director Father Paul Manning comments, "I would agree that we have faced challenges in attracting seminarians; I am not sure that our challenges have been greater or lesser than other comparable dioceses." Father John Stowe, OFM Conv, El Paso vicar general and moderator of the curia, concurs: "I doubt that our difficulties are very different from those in other parts of the country."

Father Stowe adds, "El Paso has always been a missionary diocese, and the ratio of religious to diocesan clergy is almost one to one; some of the vocation prospects go to religious orders. Also the diocese covers ten counties of Texas, nine of which are very sparsely populated and some do not see priests very often." (In fact, El Paso has 80 diocesan priests, 36 religious priests, eight diocesan seminarians, and 24 religious seminarians, according to the 2004 Official Catholic Directory.)

Not every mission diocese, however, faces challenges in attracting diocesan seminarians. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops classifies the vocation-rich dioceses of Yakima, Savannah, Cheyenne, Rapid City, Tulsa, Alexandria, Pensacola-Tallahassee, Steubenville, and Spokane as mission dioceses.

Officials of some vocation-poor dioceses say that their proportionally lower numbers are caused by their greater selectivity in accepting applicants. Father Matthew Spahr, priestly formation director for the Diocese of San Diego, attributes his diocese’s numbers to "our increasing vigilance to screen applicants for our priestly formation program, particularly with regard to their human formation. We believe that, though we are accepting fewer men than in past years, our seminarians are of higher quality and more likely to persevere through formation to ordination and in their priestly ministry."

"Our diocese instituted a vocation board after the first wave of scandals in the early 1990s and has been particularly selective over the last decade," says Paterson’s Father Manning. "Since 1999, we have accepted only about a quarter of those who have requested to apply. Of those accepted, about 60 percent persevered in formation."

Selectivity also plays a part in the success of vocation-rich dioceses, however. "Good quality seminarians are also important tools in promoting vocations," according to Spokane’s Father Carroll. "I would guess that I have turned down nearly 50 percent of the total number of men who have asked to apply to our diocese. Happy and healthy young men who are in love with Christ and His Church inspire others to consider this way of life."

The effects of urban growth

Rapid population increases have made it challenging to recruit diocesan seminarians, says Las Vegas’s Father Wevita. "Most of the people who live in Las Vegas are new to Las Vegas. Each month we receive 2,000 new Catholics in the Las Vegas diocese. This has been the case for last ten years. It takes a few years to settle and call Las Vegas their home." San Bernardino vocation director Sister Sarah Shrewsbury, OSC, observes that the number of Catholics in her diocese has quadrupled to one million in the past 25 years.

The presence of rapidly growing cities within a diocese and the lack of rootedness to which Father Wevita refers may indeed contribute to difficulties in attracting priestly vocations. Of the ten cities with 200,000 or more people that grew most rapidly between 1990 and 2002, only one is located in a diocese with an above-average vocation rate (Raleigh, 79th). The other most rapidly growing cities are located in the Dioceses of Fresno (133rd), Phoenix (137th), Dallas (167th), and Las Vegas.

Some officials of vocation-poor dioceses attribute their track record to the clerical abuse scandal. "Because of scandals in the diocese, the priests have been hurt in spirit and have found it difficult to attract men to the priesthood," says Santa Rosa vocation director Father Thomas Diaz, whose diocese suffered a particularly sordid scandal involving former Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann. "I can say that we have faced lower numbers since the clergy abuse scandal, but that seems to be turning around," adds Father Manning of the Diocese of Paterson, whose $5-million settlement with 26 men has exceeded that of any other New Jersey diocese in the past three years. With rare exceptions, other dioceses particularly affected by the clerical abuse scandal tend to be vocation-poor; these dioceses include Lexington, Kentucky (24th), Cincinnati (77th), Portland, Oregon (102nd), Palm Beach (103rd), Tucson (140th), Manchester, New Hampshire (144th), Springfield, Massachusetts (145th), Louisville (150th), Milwaukee (151st), Orange, California (154th), Boston (161st), and Los Angeles (163rd).

Vocation-rich Spokane’s Father Carroll, whose diocese faces bankruptcy, expresses similar concerns about the future:
The Diocese of Spokane accepted only one new seminarian last year, which I attribute in large part to the negative publicity surrounding the lawsuits and declaration of bankruptcy we are facing. These are definitely dark days for our local Church. It will be very interesting to see what the nationwide impact is going to be on vocation recruiting. I suspect that, at least in the short term, it is not going to be good.
Two vocation directors predict that the recent appointment of new bishops to their dioceses may presage a local springtime for priestly vocations. Recently appointed Brooklyn vocation director Father Kevin Sweeney says, "Our previous Bishop (Thomas Daily) turned 75 and submitted his resignation in the fall of 2002. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was named as bishop of Brooklyn in the summer of 2003, but was not installed until October. Bishop DiMarzio has truly made vocations a priority in the diocese, and I have seen many hopeful signs over the past few months." Father Manning of the Diocese of Paterson, whose previous ordinary (Bishop Frank Rodimer) retired last year, concurs: "Our new bishop [Arthur Serratelli] is very vocal about vocations and is proactive about inviting people to think about priesthood and religious life. I think his direct approach has encouraged our priests, and I expect to see numbers continue to grow."

Las Vegas vocation director Father Tony Vercellone observes that many "parents are not supportive of their children entering the seminary or religious life." One vocation director candidly admits that many local priests, too, have not been supportive of new priestly vocations. San Bernardino’s Sister Shrewsbury recounts:
One reason I think we have had a challenge attracting seminarians in the past is that most people (not all)–that is, priests, sisters and lay people–stopped promoting vocations about 18-20 years ago for various reasons, as is true across the United States. We have spent the last ten years trying to change attitudes among these groups to begin and continue to plant the seeds of a vocation to priesthood, religious life, and diaconate at a young age and to keep watering the seeds that are planted. It seems that these efforts are beginning to work.

The Diocese of San Bernardino has recently experienced dramatic growth in the number of seminarians; it now, according to Sister Shrewsbury, has 26 diocesan seminarians, up from 11 in 2003 and 16 in 2004. (Sister Shrewsbury insists that these latter numbers, which were published in The Official Catholic Directory, are low; others in the diocese, she says, submitted inaccurate data to the Directory’s publisher.)

Distinctive cultures

A few vocation-poor dioceses have adopted restrictive policies for accepting seminarians from other geographical areas. San Diego’s Father Spahr says, "As a rule we do not accept men into our formation program from other areas of the country unless they have lived in the diocese for a period of five years prior to making application to our program." "We do not take candidates from outside the US," reports Las Vegas’s Father Vercellone. On the other hand, one quarter of Brooklyn’s seminarians are foreign (from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Poland, and the Philippines), and one half of San Bernardino’s seminarians are foreign born, though they "lived in the diocese for several years before going into the seminary," says Sister Shrewsbury.

Distinctive traits of local cultures can also play a role in a diocese’s failure to attract seminarians, notes Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, formerly of Honolulu (1994-2004), now of Richmond (which ranks 118th). Bishop DiLorenzo attributes Honolulu’s challenges to the emphasis that Asian and Pacific Island cultures place upon marriage and family life, to the "social and economic aspirations of Asian people for their children, which excludes priesthood," and to the clash between "seminaries and their predominantly European and Western culture" on the one hand and Asian and Pacific Island cultures on the other.

Although these cultural traits may account for Hawaii’s low number of seminarians, some Pacific Island dioceses have proved to be fruitful soil for priestly vocations. While Honolulu’s nearly 235,000 Catholics had only one seminarian in 2004, the Archdiocese of Agana (Guam) had one diocesan seminarian for every 8,214 Catholics. The Diocese of the Caroline Islands, which comprises two nations that gained independence from the US in the 1980s, has one seminarian for every 14,588 Catholics. American Samoa’s Diocese of Samoa-Pago Pago is more vocation-rich than Lincoln: it boasts an extraordinary ratio of one seminarian to every 1,819 Catholics.

Cultural and geographical factors do play a large part in the national vocation picture. Every diocese in California, New England, and New York has a rate of seminarians below the median, as does every diocese along the Mexican border except for San Angelo. Every diocese along the western two-thirds of the Canadian border (except for Seattle), on the other hand, has an above-average vocation rate, as do all the dioceses of the Dakotas, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. These factors transcend American political divisions: while the pro-Bush "red states," in general, tend to be more vocation-rich than the pro-Kerry blue states, some "red" dioceses are vocation-poor, and the most pro-Kerry area in Minnesota is located in the Diocese of Duluth, the state’s most vocation-rich diocese (16th).

Geographical and cultural factors alone, however, cannot account for the wide disparities in the vocation rates of neighboring dioceses:

• Shreveport, Louisiana, (120th) borders Alexandria (8th), whose longtime ordinary (Bishop Sam Jacobs) was recently transferred to vocation-poor Houma-Thibodaux (147th).

• Yakima (2nd) adjoins Seattle (111th).

• Denver (14th) borders Colorado Springs (108th) and Pueblo (114th). Colorado Springs jumped from 156th to 108th in the year following the appointment of Bishop Michael Sheridan, who issued a pastoral letter on the obligation of Catholics to vote for pro-life candidates.

• Wichita, Kansas, (6th) is next to Dodge City (164th).

• Chicago (41st) borders Milwaukee (151st), and Chicago and Peoria (19th) border Joliet (136th).

• In Pennsylvania, Erie (53rd) borders Pittsburgh (143rd), and Altoona-Johnstown (47th) borders Greensburg (160th), whose longtime Bishop Anthony Bosco (1987-2004) retired recently.

• Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, (17th), Lexington (24th), and Charlotte, North Carolina, (27th) border Richmond (118th).

• Lexington (24th), Nashville (36th), Knoxville (37th), and Covington (49th) adjoin Louisville (150th).
Dramatic declines

While 71 dioceses experienced a decline in the number of seminarians between 2003 and 2004, only five dioceses lost ten or more seminarians, according to statistics published in the 2003 and 2004 editions of The Official Catholic Directory. Chicago lost 21 seminarians (and now ranks 41st in the nation); St. Louis (now 93rd) lost 16. The number of Newark (80th) seminarians declined by 11, while Baltimore (115th) and Fargo (32nd) each lost ten.

Because Chicago (with 336 seminarians) and Newark (with 102) have more seminarians than other dioceses in the nation, their declines are relatively insignificant. Even after these declines, Chicago and Newark remain among the nation’s most vocation-rich major urban archdioceses; Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, for example, rank 142nd, 156th, 161st, 162nd, and 163rd respectively.

Newark’s decline in seminarians between 2003 and 2004 has proved to be temporary. According to vocation director Father Brian Plate, Newark has gained 14 seminarians since last year. Asked which factors have helped make Newark more successful in attracting vocations than other major urban archdioceses, Father Pate replied, "Newark’s success to me seems to be leadership, orthodoxy, and vocations as a priority. We’ve been blessed with two back-to-back strong, unabashed Catholic archbishops, for whom vocations and priesthood are extremely important." Indeed, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Newark’s archbishop from 1986 to 2001, ordained more men than any other bishop in the nation during that time period, according to several articles; that track record of success has continued under Archbishop John Myers.

The declines suffered by the Archdioceses of St. Louis and Balti-more and the Diocese of Fargo are more statistically significant. In a single year, Baltimore lost 27 percent of its seminarians, St. Louis lost 30 percent, and Fargo lost over 45 percent. The decline in the number of seminarians in all three of these dioceses cannot be explained by a change in bishop or vocation director during 2003. (Subsequent to the 2004 statistics, Archbishop Raymond Burke was installed in St. Louis, and former Fargo vocation director Father Robert Smith, Jr. was replaced.)

In the 1990s, the Diocese of Fargo (under Bishop James Sullivan) was frequently cited, along with Lincoln (under Bishop Bruskewitz), Peoria (under then-Bishop John Myers), and Arlington (under the late Bishop John Keating), among Americans leading powerhouses of priestly vocations. In 2001, the year Bishop Sullivan (who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease) received a coadjutor, Fargo had 42 seminarians and a ratio of one seminarian to 2,356 Catholics–a rate higher than Lincoln’s is today. By 2003, the diocese had 22 seminarians; the number fell to 12 in 2004, a 71 percent decline over three years. With a ratio that now ranks 32nd in the nation, Fargo remains vocation-rich. In 2001, Bishop Samuel Aquila, former seminary rector in the vocation-rich Archdiocese of Denver, was named Fargo coadjutor bishop. Like Bishop Sullivan, Bishop Aquila has boldly proclaimed Catholic teaching on controversial issues of the day and has been praised for his leadership in confronting pro-abortion politicians and mandating orthodox catechetical materials for parish programs.

A dramatic decline in the number of seminarians in reputed vocation powerhouses is not unprecedented. After Archbishop Myers’s 1986 appointment as coadjutor bishop of Peoria, the number of Peoria seminarians surged to 64 in 1990. By 2000–Archbishop Myers’s last full year in Peoria–that number had fallen to 33. At the time, then-vocation director Father Joseph Donton attributed Peoria’s steep decline to "the increasing vocations efforts in other dioceses," which reduced the need for non-Peoria natives to seek ordination in Peoria. (The number of Peoria seminarians has risen slightly under Archbishop Myers’s successor, Bishop Daniel Jenky, CSC; its ratio of Catholics to seminarians now stands at 19th in the nation.)

Likewise, the Diocese of Arlington had 42 seminarians in 1995. By 1998–the year Bishop John Keating died–that number had fallen to 32, with a ratio of one seminarian to 10,200 Catholics (a ratio that would rank 62nd today). The number of Arlington seminarians has continued to fall under Bishop Keating’s successor, Bishop Paul Loverde, and now stands at 23, for a 107th-place ranking.

When Fargo’s current vocation director was asked which factors, in his judgment, have contributed both to Fargo’s success in attracting priestly vocations over the years and to the recent numerical decline, diocesan director of communications Tanya Watterud replied on his behalf: "Neither he nor I feel comfortable with him having to answer interview questions about statistics from previous years." The following day, Msgr. Gregory Schlesselmann, diocesan vicar general and rector of Cardinal Muench Seminary, issued the following statement:

Given the many factors that affect a young man’s decision to pursue a priestly vocation, it is very difficult to identify as a trend fluctuations that occur over a short period of time. The action of the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to statistical measurement.
Sudden surges

Of the 69 dioceses that gained seminarians between 2003 and 2004, seven gained six or more seminarians. New York gained ten (and now ranks 162nd); Wheeling-Charleston (17th), Boise (29th), and St. Paul and Minneapolis (64th) each gained seven; and Washington (63rd), Toledo (88th), and Cleveland (100th) each gained six. In no case did the sudden increase in the number of seminarians coincide with the appointment of a new vocation director; in only one instance (Toledo) did it coincide with the appointment of a new bishop.

Not surprisingly, the factors that have contributed to the success of vocation-rich dioceses have also proved to be a factor in dioceses whose numbers have surged recently. Washington vocation director Father Robert Panke gives primary credit to prayer; the archdiocese, he says, has mandated intercession for vocations at every Mass and has recently founded a society dedicated solely to praying for vocations. Toledo vocation director Father David Nuss composed a prayer for vocations; 80,000 bookmarks on which the prayer is written have been distributed.

Episcopal leadership and the cooperation of other priests have also played an important part in the increase in vocations. "To say Cardinal McCarrick is a strong promoter of vocations would be an understatement," says Father Panke. "Everywhere he goes he speaks on the importance of opening one’s heart to the call to religious life." Toledo’s Father Nuss says:

I work especially closely with a group of roughly 40 priests. The message is clear: they are starting pitchers, and I am now a closing pitcher! I can only work with the viable candidates they send my way… Therefore, I have turned to priests who are men of prayer, generous servants, faithful to their calling and happy and who give real cause for men to consider priestly life and ministry.
Cleveland vocation director Father Robert Stec concurs: he credits Cleveland’s rising number in part to the ministry of young priests, who "are more engaged in vocations [work] than what we have seen in quite some time."

Along with these common factors, dioceses with rising numbers of seminarians can also point to distinctive reasons for their success. Toledo’s rising vocation rate is partly attributable to an expanded media presence and a "discover the priesthood" campaign launched by recently appointed Bishop Leonard Blair. Washington, like Denver and Newark, has established a seminary for Neocatechumenal Way seminarians who will be ordained for the archdiocese. Cleveland’s Father Stec believes his diocese’s rising numbers are the fruit of his strong emphasis on discussing the priesthood with junior high and high school students.

The Boise model

The number of Hispanics in the US is expected to increase from 35.3 million in 2000 to 80.2 million in 2040. As Latino culture increasingly influences the Church in the United States, one diocese that has experienced a dramatic surge in seminarians may prove to be a model for other dioceses.

The Diocese of Boise had 14 seminarians in 2003 and 21 seminarians in 2004 (for a ranking of 29th); it now has 29 seminarians, according to vocation director Father Jairo Restrepo, who recounts the factors that have led to his diocese’s vocation surge:

• "When Bishop Michael Driscoll came to our diocese a few years ago, he demanded that all parishes have adoration before the Holy Sacrament asking for vocations."

• "Four years ago, we opened a house of discernment and formation in Boise. In it live men who are considering priesthood but are not ready for seminary formation, and men from other countries who need English and an environment where they can continue growing in their vocation."

• "The encouragement from our pastors has motivated men and especially Hispanics to respond to the call."

• "Two years ago, in the midst of the shortage of priests in our diocese, the diocese was willing to sacrifice a priest from parish ministry to take over full time the work of vocations."

• "Having a bilingual vocation director has helped tremendously to bridge and reach out to Hispanics."
Father Restrepo continues:
Something remarkable that is happening in our diocese is the number of Hispanics that were living in Idaho already, but working in the fields, and now are joining us. Most of them were before in seminaries back in their countries of origin, but for economic reasons had to leave school and come to the US looking for money to help their families. Once here, they got connected with parishes and after two to six years of working in the fields and of commitment in their parishes, they have desired to continue with their education and respond to the needs in Idaho… The Lord God is blessing us in Idaho, and I do believe it is due to the prayers of God’s people before the Holy Sacrament and a bishop who is open to the work of vocations.
Prayers before the Blessed Sacrament, a zealous vocation director who seeks out Hispanic vocations "in the fields," priests who assist the vocation director in recruiting seminarians, and "a bishop that is open to the work of vocations"–these may well be the most important ingredients of the successful vocation programs of the future.

Graphic | Seminarians Preparing for Ordination by Diocese

Jeff Ziegler
writes from Ellenboro, North Carolina.

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