Interview with Bishop Roger L. Schwietz
Committee on Vocations
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Are you surprised by the increase in the number of men from minority communities being ordained?
- What are the implications of this?
- To what do you attribute the high percentage of Asian-Americans?
- To what do you attribute the low percentage of Hispanic-Americans?
- To what do you attribute the low percentage of African-Americans?
- Is the church trying to recruit more members of minority groups to consider the priesthood?
- How do these numbers compare with previous years?
- Are you seeing a higher level of education now than 30 years ago in men entering the seminary?
- Do you see a correlation between Catholic school enrollment and choice of priesthood as a vocation?
- Can you hazard a guess as to why lawyers seem attracted to the priesthood?
- Does the presence of older seminarians have a significant effect on seminary life?
- Does the Church have specific efforts towards increasing the numbers of men in seminaries?
- How are today's seminarians being trained to deal with the Church going into the Third Millennium where there's an increased number of men and women involved in lay ministry efforts?
- Can you explain why some dioceses seem to attract younger men?
- Can you explain why some dioceses seem to attract mostly candidates born outside the United States?
The fact that the number of men from the Hispanic, Asian and African American communities who are being ordained is on the increase is heartening. As a church, we have become a much more diverse community in the United States and it is encouraging to see members of the various cultural groups committing themselves to serve as priests.
The presence of newly ordained priests from minority communities reflects our church. We are "catholic" (i.e., universal or inclusive) and both the community and the ministers should include members from the variety of cultural and ethnic groups in the United States. In addition, the presence of these new priests should assist in making sure that the pastoral needs of the communities from which they come are being met. Priests are ordained to serve all Catholics, but often priests from a particular cultural group can be more effective in ministering to their own people. Likewise, their participation in diocesan activities can enable them to represent the concerns of their cultural community. This development shows that the prayers and efforts of leaders in these communities are bearing fruit, and should encourage us to do even more to invite, encourage and support vocations from many cultures.
Historically, large numbers of vocations have come from communities which have recently emigrated to the United States. This appears to be true for Asian-Americans because the number of ordinands from their community is at least three times the ratio of Asian-American in the U.S. Catholic population. Asian-Americans are successful in many areas, including education and business and are actively involved in the Catholic Church. Their culture strongly values faith, family, and the community, and priesthood is greatly respected, too. Many of them have suffered in their journey to U.S. citizenship and they are using their new-found freedom to serve others. Studying for the priesthood in their homeland was not an option for some groups, and they are grateful for the opportunity to do so here.
Although the percentage of Hispanic-American ordinands is lower than their representation in the U.S. Catholic population, it is higher than in recent years. Their history and culture offer unique challenges. For many years, even centuries, vocations to the priesthood were not encouraged among the native groups by the European missionaries; too often they were not considered "worthy." Even when Hispanics emigrated here, they were not accompanied by their own priests as other groups of immigrants were and this negatively impacted vocations. Faith plays a significant role in their family and culture, but celibacy is not always valued highly because of the cultural emphasis on marriage and family. In addition, Hispanics have not always found a warm welcome in the United States, even by the Catholic Church, and if one does not feel like he "belongs," it is difficult to consider a vocation. Lastly, many young Hispanics have expressed an interest in a vocation to the priesthood, but there can be obstacles to overcome including language, academic preparation, economic worries and even immigration status.
This year's percentage of African-American ordinands disappointed me because last year the percentage compared more favorably to the African-American percentage in the U.S. Catholic population, namely 4 percent. I think it illustrates the ongoing challenge to make African-American Catholics feel welcome in our church and to invite them to take their place in leadership. Faith and family are important in the African-American community, but a relatively small percentage affiliate with the Catholic church. Sadly, the effects of racism continue to be felt both in our society and the church; as a church, we are aware of this challenge and are striving to be more welcoming and sensitive to cultural needs.
The church has many initiatives to increase the number of priests from the various cultural groups. On the Committee on Vocations itself, a conscious decision was made to include representatives from the minority groups, and multicultural vocations was selected as a principal concern. Vocation programs are being designed to address particular cultural groups, for example, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans. Dioceses are committing resources for members of these communities; noteworthy is the fact that many diocesan vocation directors in the Southwest are Hispanic-American. Seminaries, too, are aware of the need to prepare candidates from diverse cultures and are searching for ways to accomplish this task more successfully. We have a long way to go, but we have made progress.
Unfortunately, we only have accurate numbers for last year and this is how they compare: Hispanic/Latino - from 12% to 10%; Asian/Pacific Islander - from 6% to 9%; African-American - from 4% to 2%; and, Native American/Indian - from 1% to 2%.
Yes, 30 years ago most men entered the seminary during high school or college, and thus did not have the opportunities for higher education. Young people now tend to make life-time decisions at a later age. The older vocation, which was once the exception, has become more common, but 25 percent of the ordinands still are under the age of 30 and 60 percent under the age of 35.
The correlation between Catholic school enrollment and vocations to the priesthood has been a consistent finding in the vocation research of the last three years. Commitment to Catholic schools, including the presence of priests and religious in them, is crucial to increasing the number of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life.
I suspect that some lawyers discover that the practice of law is not quite what they imagined it would be and are looking for a way of serving others more directly. Even though they have completed a rigorous education and have known success in their profession, "something" is lacking and they begin to search for it.
Their presence adds to the diversity of the seminary community. Older students can bring a more serious approach to their studies. They have experience and can more easily make connections between study and real life situations. At the same time, their personalities and lifestyles are more set and they are not always as malleable to priestly formation. The ideal is that both older and younger seminarians learn from and support each other.
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has just completed a three-year National Strategy on Vocations entitled, Future Full of Hope. This strategy enabled the U.S. dioceses to focus on vocations to both the priesthood and consecrated life. A survey near its completion indicates that many have committed more personnel and resources to increasing vocations and these efforts appear to be producing results. Successful programs have been developed and shared with other dioceses, such as vocation retreats, Operation Andrew/Miryam or dinners with the bishop, vocation camps, discernment groups and activities for Catholic schools and universities. Greater collaboration and commitment is evident; now we have to build upon what has already been accomplished.
Prior to and even during their seminary formation, seminarians are often in school with men and women preparing for lay ministry. Seminarians are also given pastoral assignments from the beginning of their time in the seminary. Collaboration with lay men and women and members of religious orders is one of the overarching themes in the Program of Priestly Formation which guides all U.S. seminaries, and opportunities are provided to practice the skills needed for collaboration. In addition, a good number of them have been involved in Church ministry prior to entering the seminary; for example, 10% of this year's ordinands listed church ministry as their principal work experience before entering the seminary.
There is always a "mysterious" element to vocations since we don't always know how God is at work in the human heart. However, some dioceses have actively encouraged younger men to enter the seminary. These dioceses have targeted vocation recruitment efforts not just at students in college and adulthood, but in elementary and secondary schools, too. They support young men in college seminaries and some even in high school seminaries. Once a tradition of entering the seminary at a younger age has begun in a diocese, it is easier to maintain it. Dioceses in which priests actively invite young men to consider priesthood seem to have greater success in attracting candidates. Another avenue is targeting campus ministry programs at colleges and universities; the presence of vocation-minded priests and staff at this point in collegiate life can be pivotal in assisting a young person to respond to God's call.
For some dioceses, it is a natural development because of their proximity to Mexico or the Caribbean, for example, or because of relationships that exist with dioceses in other countries. There are seminaries and dioceses in other countries that are willing to assist some of their seminarians to transfer to a U.S. diocese. This is sometimes due to the large numbers of students enrolling in the seminary or their pastoral concern for immigrants from their country in the United States. Other dioceses actively recruit in other countries.