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Examining the college experience of future priests
In homilies, church media, and other Catholic forums, the word “vocations,” as in priestly ones, is almost inevitably coupled with “crisis.” The Church has been struggling to reverse a decades-long drop in the numbers of priests, nuns, and brothers, holding national days of prayer for vocations, spearheading media campaigns to raise awareness of this need, and taking the message into parishes and parochial schools. Catholic leaders have also turned attention to a place where some young adults grapple with serious thoughts of a religious vocation: the college campus.
At Boston College, where any number of spiritual offerings (retreats, faith-based service, and other programs) could conceivably nurture the idea, University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and others have been asking, as he put it in an interview, “What are we doing well? What”—from a vocation perspective—”works?” Last year, in search of hard data, the University, together with the U.S. Jesuit Conference, commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct a study of how the college experience contributes to hearing a priestly call. The respondents were mostly younger priests and other men on the ordination track; they were asked about influences ranging from coursework and prayer groups to one-on-one spiritual direction. The results of that study were unveiled at a June 20–21 conference billed as a “Summit on Vocations: Exploring Ways to Promote Vocations to the Priesthood.”
The gathering in Chestnut Hill drew together 100 Catholic leaders and academic authorities on vocations. Included were eight bishops and archbishops, five presidents of Catholic universities, and more than two dozen vocation directors of dioceses, archdioceses, and religious orders such as the Jesuits and the Franciscans.
Although Roman collars were far more visible than lay attire in Gasson 100, speakers there underscored the breadth of this undertaking in the Catholic community. “The life of the Church and its vocations are everyone’s business,” from archbishops to people in the pews, Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley, OFM Cap, emphasized in a greeting. Backing up that sentiment was research presented at the conference highlighting the role of simple encouragement—by friends, family, and others—in fostering vocations.
The tone of the gathering was more upbeat than bare statistics would suggest. The ranks of diocesan and religious-order priests have thinned alarmingly from about 60,000 in the mid-to-late 1960s to around 38,000 today (even as the American Catholic population has grown steadily, from 45.6 million to 66.3 million), according to The Official Catholic Directory, an annual compilation of Church data. Young men have begun entering the seminaries, particularly diocesan ones, at a fairly steady clip—a hopeful sign. At present, nationally, the Church ordains about 400 diocesan priests and 100 religious-order priests annually. But that still isn’t enough to make up for the priests who retire or die each year.
“There’s better news here than people have previously thought,” said Mark M. Gray, a senior research associate with CARA who, on day one of the summit, delivered an overview of the center’s recent findings. He was referring partly to CARA studies documenting lay interest in pursuing a religious vocation. Last fall, for example, CARA released a study of never-married Catholics, those who could still seek celibate vocations. Among male respondents as young as 14 years old, the survey found that three percent have “very seriously” considered a religious vocation. That represents 352,800 Catholics, according to one of Gray’s slides, with the heading “No Shortage of Interest.”
He compared that sizeable group (particularly its males) to a seemingly manageable number—200. If there were at least that many more men entering the priesthood each year than currently is the case, the long decline would begin to bottom out. “And if we could move from 200 to 400″—additional vocations each year—”we wouldn’t need these surveys,” said Gray, because the priesthood would be expanding.
Gray also delved into the matter of encouragement. He served up another unintimidating number: three. Someone who is encouraged by at least three people to consider a religious vocation is about six times more likely to give it serious thought than someone with just one encourager, according to the survey of never-married Catholics. “That’s the sweet spot—the magic number,” he said, noting that 60 percent of those with three or more encouragers have seriously considered a vocation.
Obstacles to vocations were raised by CARA senior research associate Mary L. Gautier, who pinpointed a little-known and fairly recent stumbling block—student debt. Like many of their peers, more young people interested in religious life are sinking in debt, and more religious orders feel unable to pull them up, according to Gautier. She cited a 2012 CARA survey of 477 religious communities that are home to the vast majority of U.S. men and women religious. It found that about one-third of formal applicants—4,328 “serious” inquirers over the past decade—had an average debt of $28,000. Among religious orders that have experience with debt-carrying applicants, a little more than two-thirds had to turn away at least some of these men and women, for that reason. “This is an increasing problem,” said Gautier, referring to educational debt as “one implication of the college experience” that deters vocations.
During remarks after dinner that night, Fr. Leahy called on every diocese, archdiocese, and religious order to devise a strategic plan for vocations. “I use that word strategic, because that word is about having an honest assessment of current realities and current efforts,” he said, adding that any plan should be hammered out with lay collaborators, not just Church leaders. He stressed the need to follow through on a long-term plan “with personnel and money.”
Leahy also discussed what Catholic universities have been doing to bolster vocations while ministering otherwise to students. He spoke of service opportunities with a spiritual component in which students reflect on how their faith life was touched by the activity; of “focused retreat programs” that are “serious about the engagement of prayer, the person of Christ, and Scripture”; and of support groups for those contemplating this life. “Students who are thinking about priesthood, I think, often feel isolated. If they can be part of a group that meets once a month, have time for prayer, conversation, hear the vocation stories of others, that is reassuring, and I think at times it confirms a direction in people’s lives,” he said.
Day two of the conference brought a focus on the new study titled “The Influence of College Experiences on Vocational Discernment to Priesthood and Religious Life,” based on questionnaires completed by 1,575 men between April and June of last year. Most respondents had attended either a public or a Catholic university (40 percent and 39 percent, respectively).
Among other questions, these recently and not-yet-ordained men were asked to rate whether a religious activity had “very much” influence on their vocational decisions. Included in a sampling of two dozen activities were the three commended by Leahy. Thirty-nine percent cited a “vocation support group,” 36 percent pointed to “retreat experiences,” and a quarter attributed the same influence to “service programs.” The survey did not cut finely enough to distinguish among types of service and retreat programs as Leahy did.
Topping the list was “spiritual direction”—which usually involves a specially trained minister who helps a student, for example, with his or her prayer life. The largest share of respondents (65 percent) referred to this influence on their vocational discernment. Graduates of Catholic colleges were only a little more likely than those from non-Catholic schools to identify spiritual direction, often available through campus ministry programs at state universities.
James C. Cavendish, a University of South Florida sociologist and lead investigator for the study, accented spiritual direction in his summary of the results. He urged that campus ministries expose as many students as possible to this practice. “This is where a lot of the vocational discernment takes place,” he said.
According to the study, other significant influences included having a nun or priest as a professor, taking a course that inspired interest, engaging in group prayer, and attending Mass. “It’s interesting that Mass is important but homilies are not,” Cavendish noted slyly, drawing laughs from the Church leaders who sat at round tables in Gasson and who are used to being teased about the quality of Catholic sermons at Mass.
During a Q&A session, Rev. David Ruchinski, ordained six years ago and now vocation director of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, raised a pointed question about Catholic university efforts to promote vocations. He said dioceses in his region are seeing more new seminarians than in the recent past but very few from Catholic schools; by and large, recruits are hailing from public universities. “There’s a skew,” he said—suggesting that Catholic universities, affiliated mostly with religious orders, are steering the men to those communities, not to dioceses.
There was some debate on that, and then Gautier stood up a few tables away to say that location matters too. “The Catholic population is shifting”—mostly toward the Sun Belt—”and they didn’t have the foresight to bring their institutions with them,” she quipped. In regions such as the Southwest, the masses of young Catholics from which the few vocations flow are gravitating to public colleges and universities.
And that pointed up a further challenge: nurturing vocations in places, including those with growing Hispanic populations, where the institutional Church has less reach.
Read more by William Bole