Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
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
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."
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,
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 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 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 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 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 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 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 of life."
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.
Read Part Two of "Priestly Vocations in America"
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