Two years ago, on a return visit to Italy, my pilgrimage group happened to be in Assisi the day Corpus Christi was observed. It was the end of the day, our feet hurt, and our energy was flagging, but we determined to join the locals for the evening feast-day service we saw posted on walls across town.
It began with Mass at the 12th century cathedral of San Rufino, where St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized. It ended, after a long, winding Eucharistic procession through steep, narrow streets, with benediction at the Basilica of St. Francis on the lower end of town. Bells tolled as we left the cathedral, still more as we reached the town square, and still more as we approached the basilica.
Leading us out of the church were heralds, dressed in medieval doublets and blowing long-necked trumpets. Then came the clergy-including our own Father Peter-and religious.
Never shall I forget that sight-hundreds of men and women in vestments, cassocks, and robes, filing down the center aisle two by two. Priests from all corners of the world. Brothers, monks, and friars, in hooded robes with cord belts and wooden rosaries. Sisters in floor-length habits with veils and wimples. Dominicans, Franciscans, and Poor Clares. Benedictines. Carmelites. A stream of white and black and brown and dove-gray.
And what was most astonishing-most of the faces were youthful. What a powerful testament to the continuing strength of the Roman Catholic Church and its universal appeal to new generations.
Keep that image in mind the next time someone talks about the crisis in religious vocations.
No, the crisis isnt over-at least, not in every diocese in this country. There is still a severe priest shortage. But yes, there is good news to report.
Ordinations are increasing. Some older orders of sisters, brothers, and priests are healthy in number, and new orders are emerging.
In short, efforts to increase vocations are paying off on several fronts. CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, keeps track of the U.S. numbers reported by dioceses and the Official Catholic Directory. The data indicate that ordinations have ticked upwards this decade. In 1999, 442 new priests were ordained in the United States. This past year, the total was 480.
Admittedly, thats a small increase, especially when compared to 994 ordinations in 1965. Its so small, in fact, that the social scientists at CARA are not yet ready to label it a trend. The increase is within the margin of error, said Mary L. Gautier Ph.D., senior research associate. We wont know this is a trend until time bears it out.
Still, she said, the movement is in the right direction. Just the fact that the number of ordinations has not declined in ten years should be a point of hope.
That note of professional caution is needless, some would say. It flies in the face of the reality, as least as we are experiencing it in the Midwest, said the Rev. Thomas Wilson of Minnesota, a member of the board of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocations Directors.
Almost every diocese, he said, is experiencing an increase in the number of seminarians.
Until July 6, when he assumed a pastorate in Lakeville, Minnesota, Father Wilson led the vocations effort in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. The college seminary doubled in size in six years. This fall it enrolled 152 men from 27 dioceses. Of the total, 34 hailed from the archdiocese. Seminary enrollments, Wilson said, are a more accurate snapshot of todays vocation picture than ordination numbers.
In point of fact, a CARA report from April 2008 (http://cara.georgetown.edu/Overview0708.pdf) documented a small increase in enrollments at both college seminaries and graduate seminaries. That uptick should play out within six to 10 years with still more ordinations. Dont misunderstand me. The priest shortage is real-more than 3,000 parishes are without a resident priest pastor. And many religious institutes have few if any members under age 40.
But when discussing vocations, keep these points in mind:
- The rate of decline has been far greater among members of orders than among diocesan priests. And enrollment of religious seminarians continues to decrease. From 2007 to 2008, the total dropped by 67, or 8 percent.
- Immigration sharpened the priest shortage. The Catholic population in the United States increased by roughly 14 million people from 1965-2000, while the total number of priests dropped by 13,000.
- The 1950s and 1960s were a high-water mark for ordinations and religious vocations in America. The bleak picture we see today looks very different when the century is viewed at whole. In fact, the numbers of priests and brothers in religious orders were greater in the year 2000 than in 1945. Thousands of men and women took final vows during the 50s and 60s, and they are now retirement age.
So what accounts for the resurgent interest in vocations in recent years? There are several interrelated factors, some of which I will address in future columns:
- An increase in foreign-born seminarians.
- The influence of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
- World Youth Day and better youth ministry in general.
- The growing strength of orthodoxy.
- A greater commitment to marriage and family life. Where marriage is taken seriously and lived out faithfully and well, Father Wilson said, vocations to the priesthood and religious life will follow.
Whats more, awareness of the problem, through personal experience as well as news reports, has helped us focus on solutions. No one takes a pastor for granted anymore. And many Catholics spend hours each month before the Eucharist praying for more vocations.
So next time the topic of vocations comes up, spread some of the good news. Tell your friends. Bone up on the latest statistics and keep the negative news in perspective. Awareness is important. So is hope.
For further reading: http://cara.georgetown.edu/bulletin/index.htm
Coming next: Young Catholics on fire for their faith