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Part Two of "Priestly Vocations in America" | Part One

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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