WASHINGTON — When Pope Benedict XVI inaugurates the Year of the Priest on June 19, American Catholics will have specific news to celebrate.
There are more priests being ordained in the United States, and the average age of men being ordained is getting younger.
The Year of the Priest begins on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart and is dedicated in a special way to St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, 150 years after his death.
St. John has been the patron of parish priests. This year he will be made patron of all priests. And it’s a good year for it, in terms of numbers, according to the U.S. bishops, who released the annual data on members of the latest ordination class at the end of April.
The survey, “The Class of 2009: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood,” was conducted by the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
This year’s class is 465 strong. That’s up from 401 a year ago. The largest classes are in the Archdioceses of Newark, N.J. (13), Chicago (10) and Washington (eight). The Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., is ordaining seven, its largest class since the early 1970s. The Diocese of Cincinnati is also ordaining seven. The Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., is ordaining six.
When Father John Vianney was ordained in 1815, he was older than most new priests — 27. But that’s young by today’s standards.
Whereas the average age at ordination was 37 in 2006, this year the median age for diocesan ordinands is 32. Between 1998 and 2006, the average ordination age increased 2 1/2 years. The average age has been declining since 2006.
“One thing that’s not apparent yet in the numbers — because when you look at ordination class, you’re looking at men who entered seminary seven to nine years ago — is the drop in age,” said Father Len Plazewski, vocation director for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., and president of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. “In the next couple of years, it [the graph of the median age] will look like a ski slope. You’ll see more men being ordained in their 20s.”
Father Plazewski said that vocation directors first noted the trend about four years ago.
“We noticed who was entering seminary,” he said. “More guys are entering after high school or within a year or two after college.”
Father Brian Christensen, vocation director for the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D., said that’s certainly the case in his diocese.
“Currently in formation, I have 10 guys and three applicants,” said Father Christensen. “Of those, only one is above the age of 28. At places like St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., you can see the preponderance of guys are younger.”
Asked what’s responsible for the trend, Father Plazewski said that it’s somewhat of a mystery.
“It has to be a move of the Spirit,” he said. “You also have to give some credit to Pope John Paul II.
“My sense is that the seminary formation programs are far more sound than they were 10 to 15 years ago. The Vatican seminary visitation report also mentioned this new generation of young rectors,” said Father Plazewski.
More than likely, noted Father Plazewski, young men visiting seminaries are meeting rectors and other seminarians who are much like themselves age-wise, and that positive experience encourages them to begin attending sooner.
In his day, St. John Vianney lived in a culture that supported the faith and the priesthood.
Father Andrew Ricci, vocation director for the Diocese of Superior, Wis., who has tried multiple methods of vocations outreach, said today’s youth need to find that culture elsewhere — including YouTube, where he posts vocation-related material.
Nothing, however, can match the power of the personal invitation, he says.
“The personal invitation is absolutely essential beyond belief,” said Father Ricci. “When someone is inviting, it presupposes that there’s going to be a personal relationship there. Inviting someone shows that you recognize their gifts and how those gifts are meant to give glory to God. Jesus called people by name.”
An application of St. John Vianney’s life is his commitment to the seminary, despite others telling him to abandon the idea.
One disturbing finding from the CARA report was that nearly 45% of priests who were ordained this year said that they had been discouraged from considering the priesthood. Of those, nearly six in 10 said a parent or family member was the source of the discouragement. While 51% said that a friend or classmate had counseled them against the priesthood, 15% said that a priest or other clergyman had.
Father Ricci remembered the response of his father to the news that his only son wanted to pursue the priesthood. The conversation took place while he was running errands with his father.
“He took a deep breath, looked down, and said, ‘Son, I’ll be honest with you. Someday, I’d like to hold my grandson and I’d like to know that he carries our last name.’ Then he said, ‘But, son, that’s what I want. What I want is not important here. If this is really what you want to do, then you need to know that I would be honored to support you in that,’” recalled Father Ricci.
Father Christensen said that as vocation director he has seen families who are “tepid at best and outright opposed at worst.”
“We had a man in seminary whose parents outright disapproved,” he said. “After three years of seminary, he left, but I don’t think the desire has left his heart.
“In some cases, it’s a parent’s desire for grandchildren,” said Father Christensen. “In other cases, even though they might admire priests and see the Church as positive, there’s a fear of the unknown and potential loneliness. Yet, another CARA survey showed that more than 90% of priests say they are happy in their vocation.”
‘Fishers of Men’
The Year of the Priest can build on momentum that is already under way.
The CARA report has consistently noted that a significant proportion of ordinands cite being encouraged by a fellow priest to consider the priesthood as one of the primary sources of discerning their vocation. In the latest report, 80% of ordinands report being encouraged to consider the priesthood by a priest; 50% report friends, parish members or a parent encouraged them.
By comparison, relatively few say that television, radio, billboards or other vocational advertisements were instrumental in their discernment. But 76% of ordinands had reported seeing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Fishers of Men” promotional DVD.
Father Christensen recalled attending church and a Catholic high school, but it wasn’t until he was in the Air Force that a chaplain asked him if he had considered the priesthood.
“We need to do a better job of inviting others to consider the priesthood,” he said. “If someone had said something, I might have considered it sooner.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Study Finds More Foreign-Born Priests
Over the past four years, the report from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has shown that approximately one quarter of ordinands were born outside the U.S., with the largest numbers coming from Mexico, Vietnam, Poland and the Philippines.
According to this year’s statistics, the ordination class of 2009 claims 11% Asian-born men, though the percentage of Asian Catholics in the U.S. is only 3%; 6% of the class is from Vietnam, and 2% are from the Philippines.
Yet, Father Len Plazewski, vocation director for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., and president of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, noted, while the priesthood certainly is more ethnically diverse, the way that CARA asks the question doesn’t allow ordinands to make a distinction between someone who has lived in the U.S. for most of his life or is a more recent immigrant.
“We have five seminarians who are foreign-born, but all of them grew up in our diocese,” said Father Plazewski. “That question needs to be a bit more nuanced.”
— Tim Drake