COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Pop quiz: Which school has the most alumni in the St. Cecilia Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of Nashville?
A. Thomas Aquinas College.
B. University of Dallas.
C. Franciscan University of Steubenville.
D. Christendom College.
Okay, trick question. These four schools, at least in the past, have prolifically provided vocations to many orders.
Which of these schools graduated the most future Nashville Dominicans?
A. University of Notre Dame
B. The Catholic Universiy
C. Texas A & M
Texas A & M might look like the oddball on this list as the only non-Catholic school, but six of the school's alumni have joined the 200-strong Dominican Sisters. That's just shy of the 10 women from the University of Dallas, a Catholic school with a 47-year history.
Sister Catherine Marie, the order's vocations director and director of postulants, said it's not just coincidence that a secular school is producing a high rate of vocations.
“They have an outstanding Catholic center there,” she said. More than 250 students attend daily Mass, Bible studies are full and eucharistic adoration draws crowds, she added.
Which is proof of the effect colleges and their lack of or attention to the spiritual lives of students can have on an individual's vocation discernment.
It's not news that vocation rates have steadily declined during the past three decades. Between 1965 and 1998, according to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of priests fell from 58,132 to 47,582; priestly ordinations dropped from 994 to 509; religious brothers decreased from 12,271 to 6,115 and religious sisters from 179,954 to 85,412.
Despite the downward spiral, certain schools are seeing their rates hold steady or even increase. They attribute it to two main reasons: adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and visible examples of people living out God's call to the religious life.
“All too often people assume what their vocation is,” said Third Order Regular Franciscan Father David Pivonka, vice president for mission effectiveness at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. “Catholic colleges have a responsibility and an obligation to create an environment where young people can discern vocations.”
The university, which has supplied 27 priests to the Diocese of Steubenville, has a unique program for vocation discernment. Not only does it host an annual Vocations Awareness Fair, monthly holy hours for women considering the religious life and information nights where young men can talk with Franciscan priests, but it also has on-campus living arrangements for students who think they might be called to the priesthood or religious life.
Women live in a household called “Mary Spouse of the Spirit.” Men discerning a call to the priest-hood enter the Pre-Theologate Program. The 75 men currently enrolled must commit to morning and evening prayers, daily Mass, adoration and frequent confession.
Each year the Pre-Theologate Program sends between eight and 15 men to seminaries after graduation, and the school can count on two to four ordinations from each class. In addition, at least three or four men who were not part of the program enter religious life or diocesan training.
At Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., nearly 12% of each class enters the seminary, and half of those endure through ordination. After 31 years in existence, the school will mark its 34th alumni ordination in June.
“We don't see ourselves as a vocations factory,” said Dave Shaneyfelt, director of college relations. “It's a natural consequence of good liberal Catholic education.”
Father John Higgins, a priest for the Archdiocese of New York and a graduate of Thomas Aquinas, credits his alma mater with educating him in critical thinking and the interplay of man, God and world through its great books curriculum.
“A priest who will serve the Church at the beginning of the Third Millennium must be prepared to confront a culture of unbelief,” Father Higgins said. “He must correctly understand the modern mind so that he will be able to dialogue with his contemporaries. He must know how to think critically and logically if he intends to give a convincing presentation and, in some cases, defense of his belief.”
Besides the curriculum, he remembers the strong faith life of his fellow students and their dedication to daily Mass and prayer. “In this context it was easy for me to hear God calling me to serve him as a priest,” he said.
At Thomas Aquinas, those who are discerning a call have plenty of ways to seek guidance. The school holds regular vocation workshops where priests and women religious come to meet with interested students, and the three full-time chaplains provide daily examples of the priesthood and religious life.
Benedictine Father Andrew Koch works as a temporary chaplain at the college. Also a graduate of Thomas Aquinas, he said it was a convergence of two factors at the school that drew him to consider the priesthood: “The study of great books in the light of faithful guidance of the magisterium in combination with daily living of the life of faith.”
That life of faith, he said, was evident in faculty members, priests and students alike. More than half of his classmates attended daily Mass, he remembered.
One-third of Thomas Aquinas graduates who choose the religious life become diocesan priests. The rest select religious orders; the most popular is the Legionaries of Christ.
At Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., 15% of alumni have entered the religious life. The majority of men become diocesan priests, with 14 serving in the Diocese of Arlington, but alumni have also entered Miles Jesu, the Society of St. John, the Fathers of Mercy, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King and the Congregation of St. John.
Dr. Timothy o'Donnell, college president, credits the high percentage of vocations to “the natural and supernatural beauty found on campus,” which creates an atmosphere where students are “truly able to reflect upon their lives and are more easily able to hear the Lord's call and be open to it.”
Last year, o'Donnell's own daughter became one of many Christendom women to enter a Poor Clare monastery. Many others have joined Carmelite and Dominican orders.
In fact, the Christendom women named the Dominican Sisters of Nashville as an “order of choice.” Although the average age of women religious is 69, the Nashville Dominicans break the trend with an average age of 36. Most women join at age 24, and of the 200 sisters, just 15 are retired.
Sister Catherine Marie attributes the appeal to an “increased interest in dynamic orthodoxy,” fostered by her order and many Catholic colleges.
She said the most positive thing any college can do to encourage vocation discernment is to provide eucharistic adoration.
“Eight out of 10 girls who come to us say they discovered their vocation before the Blessed Sacrament,” she said. “Really, there's no reason [to pursue a vocation] if not for him.”
Dana Wind is based in Raleigh, North Carolina.