Catholic Colleges Produce Abundant Vocations
Graduates Serve God as Religious and Priests
ENCOURAGING VOCATIONS. Thomas Aquinas College’s acolyte program, with Father Cornelius Buckley. Courtesy of Thomas Aquinas College
In the 2007 issue of Seminarium, a publication of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, Thomas Dillon, the late president of Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), authored an article outlining his view of why his lay-administered, co-educational college had produced such a high number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life (https://ThomasAquinas.edu/catholic-life/vocations-flourish).
Since TAC’s founding in 1971, about 11% of the student body — currently numbering nearly 400 — have pursued vocations to the priesthood or religious life; today, TAC has 65 ordained alumni and 45 religious sisters and brothers who are alumni.
TAC is one of a handful of small, faithful Catholic colleges in the U.S. producing vocations at a time when vocations from far larger and better-known Catholic universities have slowed to a trickle.
“It is the natural fruit of a faithful Catholic education,” said Anne Forsyth, TAC’s director of college relations and assistant to the president.
“Our whole way of life at the college encourages students to think about their vocations.”
The college welcomes vocations directors and religious community representatives to the campus to speak to students, and many male students are part of TAC’s acolyte program.
But a more significant factor, Forsyth believes, is the school’s thoroughly Catholic environment, which includes four daily Masses and four campus chaplains available to students for confession and spiritual direction.
Father Brendan Kelly is a TAC alum (Class of 1985) and a pastor and seminary professor for the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb. For him, one of the strongest factors leading him to the priesthood was TAC’s curriculum.
As he said, “The college showed me the consistency of truth with the Catholic life — and that this truth is something to which I needed to order my life.”
When presenting “the truth as a whole,” he continued, “considering religious life becomes a normal thing for young Catholic men and women to do.”
Integrated into the curriculum was the sacramental life of the Church; the college founders, for example, intentionally scheduled daily Mass at a time when nothing else was scheduled so that those on campus had no reason not to attend.
Father Kelly said, “When I was there, I saw students’ spiritual lives improve. Our students, for example, were sponsoring their own Rosaries or forming choirs so they had the chance to pray the Divine Office.”
Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, has seen similar success. It has a larger student body, with approximately 2,500 on-campus students, and was founded in 1946. It has 700-plus alumni who have become priests and religious, with about 400 still living today.
Among its programs to promote vocations, Franciscan offers an annual vocations fair and a “Priestly Discernment Program,” which has prepared 115 men for ordination since 2004.
Franciscan grad Father Mark Bristol was ordained for the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2016. He was positively influenced in his vocation by Franciscan’s discernment program:
“We prayed together, learned together and supported one another as we discerned our vocations.”
The program is enhanced by the liturgical and social life on campus, he said, “as you’re around so many young people on fire for their faith.”
Fellow students and professors encourage vocations, Father Bristol said. He recalled a math class in which the professor began by talking about the saint of the day. “We saw our professor living out his faith in a very public way.”
In Franciscan student households, he continued, “There is no peer pressure to engage in behaviors that go against the faith, but peer pressure instead which encourages holiness. It results in fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”
Tom Sofio, a spokesman for Franciscan, added, “Our students know that priests and religious are valued here just as much as students going into nursing or social work or any other major area we offer.”
Father Bristol also participated in Franciscan-sponsored missions in Third World countries, where he developed skills that help him in his priesthood today. Volunteering in a Guatemala orphanage, for example, helped him learn about working with children, which helps him when he works in his parish school. Engaging in door-to-door evangelization in a mission in Jamaica, he continued, taught him that he must go out into his neighborhood today to invite people to church.
The university’s vocations influence reaches beyond its student body; Franciscan sponsors 23 annual weekend youth conferences in June and July in 13 states and two Canadian provinces that draw more than 50,000 youth. Ten percent of U.S. priests ordained in 2015 and 16% of men and women who professed perpetual vows in religious life in 2014 said they had participated in a Franciscan youth conference before entering religious life or seminary.
Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., also has strong vocations numbers. On June 18, it saw the ordination of Matthew Rensch, Class of 2011, to the priesthood. Father Rensch is the 79th alumnus priest to come out of the college since it was founded in 1977. An alumna from the Class of 2002, Sister Mary Mercy (Robyn Lee, a former Register staffer) joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist this year; she is the 49th alumna sister to come out of Christendom.
Christendom, too, boasts a strong Catholic life on campus, as well as discernment groups and an annual “Discernment Weekend,” which welcomes vocations directors and representatives of religious communities. Additionally, students who enter religious orders and take final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are eligible for loan forgiveness from the college.
Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., has also seen some strong numbers for vocations in recent years, with 98 graduates entering religious life or seminary. The school offers programming designed to foster positive attitudes toward the priesthood and religious life. Students also have regular access to Benedictine chaplains, who, the school notes, “have taken the ‘Oath of Fidelity’ and are personally committed to the Church’s dynamic orthodoxy.”
Benedictine priests, including associate chaplain Father Jay Kythe, offer spiritual direction to students.
“Young people want to discern God’s will for their lives,” Father Kythe said. “We do what we can to help them see if they are called to the married state or religious life.”
Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.
Read the complete College Guide here.
- Sept. 4-17, 2016