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The Priest Shortage Isn’t Over, But Seminaries Are Filling Up
BY TIM DRAKE REGISTER SENIOR WRITER
— It’s vocations awareness week — but most Catholics
aren’t aware of which dioceses are having successes with vocations.
The list might surprise you.
Dioceses such as Boston,
Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia and St.
Paul/Minneapolis continue to have the largest ordination classes, in part
because of their larger Catholic populations. When the number of seminarians is
compared with the total number of Catholics in the diocese, however, a very
different list emerges — one that shows that the largest number of priests per
capita are coming from the Midwest and the southern United States.
“The south is very religious,” said Father Tim McKeown, vocation director for the Diocese of Savannah, Ga.
“We’re about 3% to 4% Catholic, but there is a strong Christian ethos. I think
that certainly helps.”
According to the Official Catholic Directory’s 2006
statistics, the Diocese of Savannah ordained five men in 2005, putting it at
second in the Top 10 list of dioceses with the most ordinands
per Catholics. With a total Catholic population of 73,649, that makes the ratio
one ordinand per 14,730 Catholics.
Compiling data from the 2006 Official Catholic
Directory published by Kenedy and Sons, the Register
discovered that outside of Ogdensburg,
N.Y., those dioceses with the
most ordinands-per-Catholics are concentrated in the
South. They include Savannah, Ga.,
and Memphis, Tenn. The remaining four are located in the
Midwest: Fargo, N.D.,
Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Springfield, Ill.
Comparing the 2006 data with that provided by the
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) from 2004, the Diocese of
Fargo and the Diocese of Memphis appear on the Top 10 list of ordinands-per-Catholic both times. The only diocese to make
both the list for most ordinands and list for ordinands-per-Catholics was the Diocese of Ogdensburg.
The Diocese of Memphis has quadrupled its number of
seminarians in the past five years. Father Keith Stewart, vocation director,
cited personal contact as the key.
“I’ve really worked with our priests to get them to
extend a personal invitation to men,” said Father Stewart, who has been at his
post for five years. “It’s been one of my biggest priorities because I’ve seen
it borne out in experience that the personal invitation is what gets the ball
According to Father Stewart, those interested in
pursuing a priestly vocation come to him only after having initial contact with
“The priests are the real recruiters,” said Father
Stewart. “Ninety percent of them come to me only after someone else got the
ball rolling. I’ve only had one or two who have come to me on their own.”
bishops’ conference survey bears that out. According to the study done by the
Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation, 78% of the men being ordained
said they were initially invited by a priest to consider the priesthood. That
same survey showed that very few men are inspired to consider the priesthood by
a website or advertisement.
“Ask any of our seminarians and they will tell you
that they began to seriously consider the priesthood only the third or fourth
time someone asked them,” said Father McKeown.
Toward that end, the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio,
which was on the Top 10 list two years ago, has instituted an Andrew Dinner in
conjunction with the Knights of Columbus.
“In January and February we host three dinners in
different parts of our diocese,” explained Father Timothy Shannon, director of
vocations for the Diocese of Steubenville. “Parish priests invite anyone from
junior high school through college whom they think might have an interest. It’s
based on the fact that Andrew heard the call of God and brought Peter to
The format of the dinner includes a testimony by a
seminarian and a talk by the bishop.
The Diocese of Steubenville currently has 11
seminarians studying for the priesthood.
In addition to personal contact, vocation directors
also point to the importance of one’s relationship with Jesus Christ.
Father Tim Donohue, assistant vocation director for
the Diocese of Savannah, credits Eucharistic adoration as key to his own call
to the priesthood and as influential in the call of others.
“It is a building block for vocations,” Father
Donohue was quoted as saying in the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation
Directors’ newsletter. “I have discovered that more than a few vocations have
come from men with a devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, who found their calling
by spending time with Christ in adoration or prayer before the tabernacle.”
Father McKeown also credits
the importance of prayer. He said that was fostered under the diocese’s
previous vocation director, Father Brett Brannen, who
now serves as vice rector at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg,
Md. Under Father Brannen’s leadership, the diocese
developed a prayer card. On the back side of the prayer card each of the
seminarians is listed, one for each day of the month.
“We have a vocation prayer that’s been part of the
diocese for over 50 years,” said Father McKeown. “The
previous director had prayer cards made up and got them into the parishes and
diocesan schools. He handed them out to those who were sick so that they can
offer up their prayers for the diocese.”
Father McKeown said that
when prospective candidates see healthy, young seminarians joyfully following
Christ it is attractive to them.
“It snowballs. It resonates with them,” said Father McKeown. “They can put themselves in those shoes easier.”
While studies conducted by the Center for Applied
Research in the Apostolate have tended to show that priests are trending toward
being older, more educated and foreign-born, that’s not quite the case among
“Our seminarians are getting younger, especially when
you look at the American-born seminarians,” said Father Stewart. The Diocese of
Memphis currently has 18 men studying for the priesthood. “We have only two
second-career vocations. Most are right out of high school or college.”
Seminarian John Johnson, who is a transitional deacon
studying at Mount St. Mary’s for ordination to the Diocese of Savannah, has
observed the same trend. He said that the priesthood is attracting younger men.
“We have 150 to 160 guys here,” said Johnson. “All of
them, with the exception of one or two, are about my age. There’s a fresh,
vital spirit among the young guys. They are ready to go out, be good priests,
remain faithful to their state in life, and do their best to serve and defend
Another example can be found in the Archdiocese of
St. Paul and Minneapolis.
There, 142 young men from across the United States are studying at St.
John Vianney Minor Seminary. The Diocese of Duluth,
which is on the Register’s Top 10 list, has 16 seminarians studying at St. John
Vianney. In 2005, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis ordained 15
men to the priesthood. The archdiocese currently has 34 of its own young men
studying at the seminary.
In an age where the Church has been marred by the
past scandals of some of her priests, one would think that that would impact
the numbers of men desiring to be priests, but Deacon Johnson said that isn’t
“We all have a sense that we are in the wake of the
scandals and we’re learning about the modern situation, but it doesn’t faze
us,” said Johnson. “I felt that after the scandals there would be a sharp
drop-off in the numbers of young seminarians, but it hasn’t been that way at
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.