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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
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."
[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.
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.
Part Two of "Priestly Vocations in America"
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