by Pater Spectatores
(Editor’s Note: The state of the Church being what it is, many of our good priests are afraid to speak their minds publically for fear of retaliation. Hence, the need for a pseudonym for this seasoned US cleric.)
Who are they? Archbishop Fulton Sheen called them “Those Mysterious Priests” in his 1974 book, and his earlier (1962) work is titled “The Priest is Not His Own.” Father Leo Trece’s 1953 book called the priest “A Man Approved.”
Decades later, we are in the grip of a vocations crisis, as we all know. But where is this coming from?
What our new priests look like
With the ordination season also comes the annual report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, DC titled, “Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood.” Quite often, we are besieged with numbers. And while “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure,” it is also important to realize that “narratives without statistics are blind, and statistics without narratives are empty.”
And so, looking at the numbers we see that three out of four of the priests being ordained are being ordained to the diocesan priesthood, and the same percentage were born in the United States, and 85% studied at a seminary in the US. Of the respondents, 70% report being of European descent or racially ‘Caucasian’.
This is interesting since from the pews it would seem that there are an increasing number of foreign-born priests from Mexico, South America, Africa, or India being assigned to parishes, and the statistics seem almost to contradict observations in many diocesan parishes.
How much do they cost?
Half of those being ordained entered after completing a college or university degree, and almost half entered seminary at the pre-theology level.
A seminary program can range from six to eight years. Nearly all of the men with a college degree would study for six years, while those without a degree would study for eight.
Considering that the average cost per year is roughly $40,000 for one seminarian, the total cost to educate a priest would range from $240,000 to $320,000 over the six to eight year period.
This is important to note, because an investment of this size needs to be something that is not treated lightly.
What happens to our new priests?
In some dioceses, newly ordained priests are assigned to parishes which can afford a second priest, or else are put out in difficult remote assignments where an energetic priest is seen as the solution.
These are, however, not always the most appropriate assignments. First because money is not always a measure of an older priest’s ability to mentor a younger priest, nor is wealth always the best measure of a parish’s ability to train or accept a new priest. Second, because after six to eight years of living in a seminary community, a remote assignment is not necessarily the best option for a newly ordained priest accustomed to a close-knit fraternity.
When or if these young priests struggle with a caustic older pastor, an entitled parish community, or the loneliness of a remote parish, they too often are treated as if they are a failure. In some cases they can end up ultimately moved out of parish ministry or even released entirely from the priesthood.
Burning down a new house
This is tantamount to burning money. Or, perhaps, considering that $240,000 to $320,000 would buy a rather nice home in some US dioceses, this is a bit like burning down a newly-built house.
This is hardly a very prudent use of funds donated by the faithful for vocations, and does not consider what may be needed to transition a newly ordained priest from seminary into parish life.
A closer look
Looking at other statistics, prior to entering seminary, 78% of those being ordained were altar servers (or perhaps in this case, it is appropriate to say “altar boys”); 75% participated in Eucharistic Adoration, and 72% prayed the Rosary.
These are strong statistics which would seem to indicate that service at the altar, and traditional devotions play a large part not only in vocational discernment but also in preparing a man to persevere through a seminary program.
Who supported our new priests’ vocations?
Also, nearly 90% were baptized as infants and 77% reported that both parents were Catholic. The average family size was 5 (two parents and three children,) and only 6% of those to be ordained were an only child.
68% took part in a vocations discernment retreat, on average taking part in one such retreat before entering seminary.
92% were encouraged by someone to consider the priesthood. Nearly 70% report being encouraged by a parish priest, while of the roughly half who reported being discouraged to become a priest, only 6% were discouraged by a parish priest. This emphasizes the need for the Christian faithful (both priest and laity) to be the voice of the Church in calling young men to discern ordained ministry.
What doesn’t work?
Looking at the lower end of the statistics, 5% reported participating in the annual National Catholic Youth Conference, and 6% reported participating in the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
Both of these are big events or programs with commensurate big costs and big overhead. And while their purpose is not necessarily to encourage vocations, in this area there does not appear to be much bang for the buck.
Are priestly vocations ‘mysterious’?
In conclusion, priestly vocations are perhaps not as mysterious as one may have been led to believe.
- Vocations come out of families, outside encouragement, traditional devotions, prayer, and discernment.
- Large and expensive national programs and conferences, while flashy and impressive, do not appear to have a significant impact on vocations.
From a material perspective, the cost of educating a seminarian up to the point of ordination is not insignificant. This should perhaps be reflected after ordination in how dioceses treat and assign new priests. That is, more as a valuable resource and less like another cog in an ecclesiastical machine.
If indeed there is a priest shortage, and if the priesthood can at times be a taxing and difficult vocation, more effort and resources need to be directed to not only transition and retain newly ordained priests, but to foster vocational discernment where it is coming from – family, personal encouragement, prayer, and devotions.