The Most Rev. Roger Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska, is episcopal adviser of the North American Continental Congress for Vocations and chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Vocations.
Give me enthusiasm. Give me energy. Give me people who want to change the world—so long as they want to do it for God. In short, give me people who want to pursue church service.”
This cry rings out nationwide in mainline religions, in which the percentage of priests and ministers under the age of 35 stands at around seven percent, far lower than it was only 25 years ago, according to Congregations magazine. This is a national religious problem, not just a Christian concern. Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, calls the vocations crisis, “the most serious issue facing rabbis now.”
The problem touches many religions, but for the Catholic Church it is acute. Of the men to be ordained this year, about 50 percent are under 35. This is good, except that right now we ordain fewer than 500 men annually. In 1965 we ordained almost 1,000. The numbers of priests and religious are falling as the number of Catholics increases. In 1965 there were 46.6 million Catholics in the United States. Today there are 62 million.
To serve a growing church, there are an estimated 45,000 priests, one-fifth of whom are retired. The average age of diocesan priests is 59. The average age of religious order priests is 63. There are 67,000 women religious, more than half over 70. Their median age is 68.
To date the church has addressed the vocation problem in scattershot fashion—and with scattershot results. Some dioceses, such as Joliet, Ill., have a well-developed program. Joliet’s program even includes a house of discernment where men learn about priesthood by living with priests. This summer the 10-bedroom home houses three priests, four seminarians and four candidates. It is a house of hospitality, with information nights for potential seminarians and their parents. The diocese’s efforts are effective. Where once the bishop of Joliet ordained one or two men a year, now he ordains four or five. In the fall, the diocese will have about 20 men in major theology (graduate-level studies in preparation for ordination to the priesthood). Eight years ago, it had nine.
The Diocese of Rockford, Ill., appointed a full-time vocations director in 1996, when it had eight seminarians. Two years later it initiated a multimedia vocations campaign to tell people in the pews that vocations are important and young men that priesthood is an option. This fall the diocese will have 47 seminarians.
The Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., also has aggressively recruited vocations. It has a house of formation for up to 20 men interested in priesthood but not yet ready for graduate studies. The diocese set it up in the belief that the easier one makes it for men to enter into the seminary process, the more likely it is that they will respond. Students finish their college studies and take classes in theology and philosophy before they go elsewhere for major seminary. In the years 1995-99, Bridgeport ordained 31 men and led the Northeast in vocations per capita.
Many dioceses and religious orders have outreach programs that arrange for potential candidates to have dinner with the bishop and some diocesan priests or with a religious superior and some members of the order. Some orders invite people for a weekend. Guests hear vocation stories firsthand. Others have ad campaigns. Noteworthy slogans include “Can You Handle the Pressure of a White Collar Job?” (Rapid City, S.D.), “God Gave You Life. Give God a Hand” (Boise, Ida.), “Some White Collar Jobs Are More Challenging Than Others” (St. Augustine, Fla.) and “We Need a Few Good Amens” (St. Petersburg, Fla.). In Pittsburgh and Baltimore this past year, the church ran vocation ads on television during the football and basketball seasons.
Some dioceses and many religious orders provide vocation information on the World Wide Web. Addresses include: www.2beapriest4christ.com (Lansing, Mich.), www.vocations.com (Joliet, Ill.), www.thedome.org (Benedictine Sisters of Ferdinand, Ind.) and www.trymercy.org (Sisters of Mercy). We are only beginning to see the effectiveness of such efforts, but given the newfound reliance on the Web, setting up Web sites is wise if time-consuming.
The scattershot approach makes it seem like we’re doing a lot. But are we?
About 80 percent of dioceses in the United States have vocation recruitment programs. Unfortunately that means that 20 percent do not. Even worse, perhaps, is the fact—discovered in a survey last year by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate—that less than 50 percent of the priests in the nation are actively involved in inviting men to join the ranks of the priesthood. I suspect the numbers are similar for religious orders.
A key event for vocations next year will be the Continental Congress for Vocations, to be held on April 18-21 in Montreal. The event, whose theme is Vocación: Don de Dieu, Given for God’s People (Vocation, Gift of God, Given for God’s People), has been called for by the Vatican. It is the third such congress, following one for Latin America held in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1994, and a second for Europe held in Rome in 1997.
Prior to the congress, dioceses and regions will host half-day sessions to gather input for congress facilitators, who must develop a pastoral plan for vocations. Any plan should include the following objectives:
- Keep concern for vocations in front of people.
- priests and religious visible among the young.
- Help young people believe they can make a differ- ence and nurture a spiritual life.
Every diocese and religious order needs a multi-faceted recruitment plan. We also need a national plan to assist them. Some people seek a national Web site from which inquiries to a central site can be referred to the appropriate diocese or religious order. Online efforts are growing in importance. (In the Diocese of Joliet, three of the 10 men entering the seminary this fall made their first contact with the diocese on the Web.) This would make it possible to combine resources for site maintenance and promotion. Web sites are quick and easy for their visitors, but labor-intensive for their hosts. If dioceses and orders pooled efforts, they could operate a quality yet economical site.
Church personnel need to recruit for one another. Sometimes it seems as if church groups work side by side but not together. Diocesan vocation offices must be concerned for religious orders as well as for priests. Orders must be concerned for diocesan priests as well as for sisters and brothers. Vocations must be a concern for lay ministry, family life and other church groups. All should make vocations recruitment a top priority.
Every diocese and religious order needs at least one full-time vocation director. And these vocation directors need support. We need to recruit. The Diocese of Nashville has appointed a director of recruitment to work with its vocation director. Successful programs report intensive one-on-one efforts, not just mailing pamphlets and running ads. This means work on the Web, ongoing contacts with people who express interest in the order, interviewing students in Catholic schools and parish religious education programs, and work in youth retreats. It means attending campus liturgies late on Saturday or Sunday night and participating in young adult groups such as the Theology on Tap sessions at local watering holes.
Every priest and religious must personally promote vocations. In a survey of the ordination class of 2001, the sociologist Dean Hoge found that 63 percent reported that a priest had initiated a conversation about priesthood with them, and 89 percent spoke of one-on-one conversations with priests about their decisions. This past year in Joliet, the vocation director, the Rev. John Regan, spoke to all 11th grade boys in diocesan Catholic high schools. Out of the 250 interviewed, 40 expressed interest in the priesthood. If even 10 percent of them pursue a vocation, there are candidates for priesthood.
We have all had the experience of looking at a generous, idealistic young person and thinking that 40 years ago, or even 30, he would have become a priest or she would have become a sister. Yet do we go beyond our private musings to engage such persons in conversation about a vocation? The CARA Vocation Survey of Youth and Parents (1997) found that large numbers of young people think about church vocations, noting that “youth who are seriously considering vocations say they know priests, sisters, or brothers relatively well, but many say they have never been personally encouraged by a priest, sister, or brother to pursue a vocation.”
Catholic schools should be promoted. Catholic schools are still the primary place outside the family where vocations are nurtured. A Gallup study in 1993 showed that 54 percent of the nation’s Catholics 54 or younger reported that they had attended Catholic elementary school, and 26 percent said they had attended Catholic high school. The percent of 35- to 54-year-olds who had attended a Catholic college was only 10. Hoge’s survey of the class of 2001, however, found the new ordination class had a much higher percentage of members who attended Catholic schools. He found that 64 percent attended a Catholic elementary school, 54 percent attended a Catholic high school, and 56 percent a Catholic college.
Children of every age need to hear about vocations. Vocation seeds germinate early. Ten-year-olds know what doctors, police, mechanics and cashiers do. They ought to know what priests and sisters do too. Field trips to the seminary or convent may be in order. We also need to have priests and religious deeply involved in campus ministry and in other youth and young adult programs that address vocations directly.
We must target special groups, particularly Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans. Of this year’s ordination class, 13 percent are Hispanic, a figure lower than the percent of Hispanics in the total U.S. Catholic population today, estimated at 25 percent to 30 percent. Seven percent of the class are Asian or Pacific Islanders, a figure higher than the estimated 2 percent to 3 percent of Asians in the total U.S. Catholic population. One percent are African-Americans, which is less than the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. Catholic population, estimated at 3 to 4 percent.
Young people must know that this is their church. We need to involve them in all ministries, according to their abilities. In addition to being altar servers, they should be lectors and eucharistic ministers and become involved in parish charities like food banks and the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Young people need to feel comfortable in the sanctuary and in church ministry. Diocesan and national groups should promote this involvement—by diocesan and national awards, for example, and public presentations for outstanding service in a parish or diocese.
We should increase devotional life in our parishes. Some people who pursue vocations today find spiritual nourishment in such devotions as the Rosary and eucharistic adoration. We need to encourage spiritual development among the young. Almost 50 percent of this year’s class of ordinands had participated in a retreat. Retreats for young people need to be encouraged as a way to give them time to reflect on their lives and to hear God’s call.
We need solid research. We have some research on priests, but I don’t know of any national research on vocations to religious life or secular institutes. We need to know who is pursuing the consecrated life and why. We need to know what attracts today’s young people to public witness in the church. This needs to be done at the national level, and the national organizations serving sisters and brothers need to pursue this.
We need lay advisers in fields such as marketing to be wise in the ways of the world. When the Ferdinand Benedictine Sisters sought help from marketers, they were shocked because the advice they received was “worldly.” But they followed it. The order of 226 members now has 29 women preparing for final vows and about three women a year entering. In the 20-year period from 1968 to 1987, of the 48 women who entered, 18 (37.5 percent) remained. In 1989 the order formed a lay advisory council. From 1988 to 2000, a 13-year period, 31 women entered; 21 of them, or 67.7 percent, remained. From 1995 to 2000, 20 women entered the order, and 16 of them, or 80 percent, stayed.
We need to address the image problem that affects all churches. Research is finding that whereas members of the clergy were once associated with highly esteemed professions such as law and medicine, now they are viewed on a level with the underpaid and less esteemed professions of nursing and teaching. How does one address that? Perhaps less criticism of current clergy and religious is a step. Perhaps more evidence of joy in one’s vocation is another.
We need to pray. At the minimum, a petition for vocations should be a part of every Mass offered in a parish or religious house and in every Catholic school and religious education class. We also need to include prayers at home from the hearts of children, parents and grandparents.
We must take hope. We’re at a different point in time now. In the 20th century, three world events affected vocations. World War I and World War II sobered everyone and put spiritual values before them. People poured into seminaries and convents. The war in Vietnam shattered people’s belief in institutions—be it the government, the military or the church. People walked away from institutions, and church attendance dropped. That was followed by a burst of economic well-being that turned us into a consumerist society expecting instant gratification and eschewing the long view. The world is changing now. The time may be ripe again for vocations.