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

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(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.

Read Part Two of "Priestly Vocations in America"


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