WASHINGTON -- A survey of what leads young people to study for the priesthood or religious life has been commissioned by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Vocations.
The study, which will be conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), will look at four questions:
- What kinds of youth are most likely to be attracted today?
- What contexts increase or decrease interest in a priestly or religious vocation?
- What invitations attract youth?
- What challenges most excite them?
The study is part of A Future Full of Hope, the Bishops' three-year vocation strategy launched in 1996. It will be conducted in consultation with the National Religious Vocation Conference and the National Conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors.
CARA, which is based at Georgetown University, will gather fresh data from youth and parents in approximately 40 parishes representing the full diversity of Catholic life in the United States. The focus will be on such issues as everyday practice of the faith, values, feelings toward vocation-related issues, and obstacles to deepening a sense of vocation to the priestly or religious life.
Factors that fostered vocations in earlier eras will be reviewed to see which might be replicated today.
The preliminary study of existing research found that
- Declining vocations is not an exclusively Catholic phenomenon. For example, there have been drops in enrollments in the United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran seminaries.
- Parental opposition to vocations, cited in a 1996 study of Catholic youth ministry participants, is not a recent phenomenon. The report also notes that the current situation is "not so much of rising hostility to vocations as declining encouragement of them."
The preliminary research also found that "a positive family life is dramatically important in fostering vocations."
"Stability and community are important as well," it said. "Living in the same place and being involved in the same parish community over a number of years is conducive to vocations. Frequent moves are not. Having both parents of the Catholic faith is also important."
The study noted that "the prevalence of these conditions declined dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s." It noted, for example, that "mixed marriages now comprise about half of all of marriages reported by dioceses."
The preliminary research also found that "Catholic schools from elementary to college levels, but especially Catholic high schools, have a positive effect on vocations far disproportionate to their numbers."
The research underscored the importance of personally inviting young people to consider a religious vocation.
"When priests invite young men to consider the priesthood in a personal, meaningful way, vocations are sparked," the report said. "When they don't, little else will work."
The situation seems especially difficult for religious life.
"Invitations to religious life as a sister, bother, or priest also depend on personal invitation, but the situation is different," the preliminary report said. "Religious women disappeared from Catholic schools even more quickly than their numbers declined as many went on to other ministries. As a result, the vocation of a sister has become somewhat more similar to that of a brother -- something the average Catholic personally encounters after childhood, if at all."
The report cited a decline in encouraging young men to enter the seminary or religious orders.
"From the mid- to late 1960s, the percentage of priests who say they actively encourage boys to enter the seminary dropped from 64 percent to 33 percent. Among religious order priests it declined from 56 percent to 27 percent," the report said.
The importance of identity and solidarity among priests also was underscored.
"Since studies in the late 1960s, it is clear that those who have a strong, sacred definition of the priesthood and its role are much more likely to persist in their vocation," the report said. "Those with the most secular definition are much more likely to leave. This is not so much a 'conservative' orientation as one that provides a sense of identity and solidarity."
The report said that "it is the same sense of mystery which attracts current generations to the priesthood."
"However," it added, "this attraction will not last if they (seminarians) are not encouraged to personally see the viability of lifelong commitment by others who have already chosen that path."
The report added that "to choose to make the countercultural sacrifices inherent in a vocation decision there must be clear signs of support and a strong sense of identity -- a whole culture from which a person can draw life and solidarity.