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 2003a decline of nearly 47 percent.
Americas vocation crisis has been attributed to the cultures
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 Churchs 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
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 Curtisss
[Bishop Sevilla] takes time to visit our seminarians, most especially
at the seminarians year-end evaluation, when theres a big
celebration in the seminary, or simply when hes 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.
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?
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 nations 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."
Tulsas 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
Smaller and more successful
The nations 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:
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."
Spokanes 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 Gods 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 Citys 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. Yakimas
Msgr. Ecker is also vicar general and rector of the cathedral; Steubenvilles
vocation director is also vicar general, moderator of the curia, finance
officer, annual financial campaign director, judicial vicar, and pastor
of two parishes. Tulsas 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
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 Gods 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 hierarchys
most vocal critic of the Congregation for Divine Worships 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.
The nations 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
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 dioceses 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
"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 Patersons 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 Spokanes 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
The effects of urban growth
Rapid population increases have made it challenging to recruit diocesan
seminarians, says Las Vegass 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 Spokanes 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 Bernardinos
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 peoplestopped 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
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 Directorys publisher.)
Shreveport, Louisiana, (120th) borders
Alexandria (8th), whose longtime ordinary (Bishop Sam Jacobs) was recently
transferred to vocation-poor Houma-Thibodaux (147th).
A few vocation-poor dioceses have adopted restrictive policies for accepting
seminarians from other geographical areas. San Diegos 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
Vegass Father Vercellone. On the other hand, one quarter of Brooklyns
seminarians are foreign (from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Poland, and
the Philippines), and one half of San Bernardinos 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 dioceses
failure to attract seminarians, notes Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, formerly
of Honolulu (1994-2004), now of Richmond (which ranks 118th). Bishop DiLorenzo
attributes Honolulus 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 Hawaiis low number
of seminarians, some Pacific Island dioceses have proved to be fruitful
soil for priestly vocations. While Honolulus 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
Samoas 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 states most vocation-rich diocese (16th).
Geographical and cultural factors alone, however, cannot account for
the wide disparities in the vocation rates of neighboring dioceses:
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).
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 nations
most vocation-rich major urban archdioceses; Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston,
New York, and Los Angeles, for example, rank 142nd, 156th, 161st, 162nd,
and 163rd respectively.
Newarks 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, "Newarks success to me seems
to be leadership, orthodoxy, and vocations as a priority. Weve been
blessed with two back-to-back strong, unabashed Catholic archbishops, for
whom vocations and priesthood are extremely important." Indeed, Cardinal
Theodore McCarrick, Newarks 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
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 Alzheimers disease) received a coadjutor, Fargo
had 42 seminarians and a ratio of one seminarian to 2,356 Catholicsa
rate higher than Lincolns 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 Myerss 1986 appointment as
coadjutor bishop of Peoria, the number of Peoria seminarians surged to 64
in 1990. By 2000Archbishop Myerss last full year in Peoriathat
number had fallen to 33. At the time, then-vocation director Father Joseph
Donton attributed Peorias 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 Myerss 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 1998the
year Bishop John Keating diedthat 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 Keatings successor, Bishop Paul Loverde, and now stands at
23, for a 107th-place ranking.
When Fargos current vocation director was asked which factors, in
his judgment, have contributed both to Fargos 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 mans
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.
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
ones heart to the call to religious life." Toledos Father
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 Clevelands
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. Toledos 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. Clevelands Father Stec believes his dioceses
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 dioceses 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
"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 Gods 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.
| Seminarians Preparing for Ordination by Diocese
Jeff Ziegler writes from Ellenboro, North Carolina.
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