Pastors, Peers and Prayer Shape Class of 2015 Priests

Ordinations in 2015 are up 25% over previous years, and a new CARA survey gives insights into what successfully fosters a vocation all the way to ordination.

Deacon Scott Emerson, a member of the 2015 class of U.S. priestly ordinands, will be ordained June 26 as a priest for the Diocese of Madison, Wis.
Deacon Scott Emerson, a member of the 2015 class of U.S. priestly ordinands, will be ordained June 26 as a priest for the Diocese of Madison, Wis. (photo:

WASHINGTON — Five years ago, Deacon Scott Emerson had a scholarship to pursue graduate-level studies in biomedical engineering at Marquette University. But when a golden opportunity came from his professor to engage in further research, the years-long discernment of his vocation finally came to a crystal-clear conclusion — priesthood. The choice of graduate school paled in comparison to seminary, in his heart.

Within 15 minutes, Deacon Emerson would be on the phone with Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., asking to meet with him about joining the seminary. The deacon told the Register that during college he had grown up: He had dated, belonged to a fraternity and matured in his faith — particularly through spiritual direction from a priest and daily Mass — when he finally reached his decision in the summer following his graduation.

“I had done everything in college that needed to be done, and to say, ‘No’ to the Lord any longer was an impossibility,” he said. “So, I said, ‘It’s now or never, Lord: You’re clearly saying Yes, and I can’t say No any longer, so let’s do this.’”

Now 27 years old, Deacon Emerson is looking forward to his ordination June 26 as a priest for the Diocese of Madison. But he is also part of an ordination class of priests in 2015 that will have numbers not seen since the 1990s.

According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s (CARA) 2015 survey of men being ordained to the priesthood this year, the number of anticipated new priests will be 595: a potential 25% jump over last year’s priestly ordinations and confirmation that the trend shows new ordinations have been rising overall since 2005.

Still, the increased number of ordinations this year has not reached replacement level. The U.S. Catholic population continues to grow, and the number of active priests continues to drop an average 1% per year due to priests hitting retirement age, according to Father Ralph O’Donnell, associate director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.


Valuable Insights

But this latest CARA survey, Father O’Donnell explained, is providing valuable insights into the “significant influences” in men’s discernment of a vocation to the priesthood from which the Church can take note in its efforts to foster more vocations.

“It really gives us a chance to see what are the ongoing supports for someone to discern a call to priesthood and religious life and how we can, as parish communities, as family and as Church, support that,” he said.

According to the data from CARA, most of this year’s class of priests (71%) responded that their parish priests encouraged them in their vocation.

In Deacon Emerson’s case, the choice he made to leave a promising career as an environmental engineer to follow the priesthood might never have happened if he had not walked up to his college chaplain with a joke about the length of his homilies.

“I was just speaking with him in jest, but from there, it sparked a friendship,” Deacon Emerson said. “From there, I began spiritual direction with him on a regular basis.”

Under the priest’s direction, then-undergraduate Emerson developed a consistent prayer life of attending daily Mass, spending 15 minutes in prayer before the Eucharist and praying both the Rosary and the Church’s Morning Prayer.

The CARA study found regular prayer and devotion to the Eucharist were key aspects of most men before they entered seminary: 70% had regularly prayed the Rosary, and 70% joined in Eucharistic adoration before they entered seminary.

“The biggest thing for me was to attend Mass every day, to receive Our Lord [in the Eucharist] every day,” Deacon Emerson said.


Priests Inspire Vocations

The ordination of Deacon Emerson and five other new priests is a milestone in Bishop Robert Morlino’s efforts to create a culture of vocation in the diocese. According to diocesan information, when Bishop Morlino arrived in 2003, they had six seminarians and zero ordinations. Now, the diocese has 33 seminarians, with an average of six priestly ordinations projected over the following four years.

Father Gregory Ihm, the diocese’s vocations director, told the Register that Bishop Morlino’s strategy has been to put joyful priests and seminarians in places where they can share their stories and encourage others to consider their way of life.

“One of the most important things is that we’ve put some very solid priests who live out their priesthood joyfully and teach what the Church teaches at our public-university Newman Centers,” Father Ihm said. “That has probably seen the most impact, out of all the things we’ve done.”

Father Robert Barron, rector of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, said the “No. 1” factor behind most of the archdiocesan seminarians pursuing priesthood was the encouragement of their parish priests telling them they would make good priests.

“There’s no question about it,” he said. “Encouragement from, let’s say, three others usually makes a big difference, whether it is parents or friends, but No. 1 is the parish priest.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago has 14 priests up for ordination this year, the largest for any diocese or archdiocese, according to CARA’s available data.

Father Barron added that joy-filled priests are the best advertisers for the life of the priesthood, but the Church needs to do a better job of getting the message out that “priests are disproportionately happy in their work” compared to other professions in the United States.

“Priests can and should be very direct and frankly invite people who we think would be good candidates and let them see our joy in being priests,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, led by Archbishop Charles Chaput, has suffered a drought when it comes to vocations but is starting to see a slight uptick this year in applications of young men, thanks to increased recruitment efforts.

Bishop Timothy Senior, rector of the archdiocese’s St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, said the archdiocese has been building a network of younger priests who are active in the community and willing to talk with youth about considering a vocation.

“Our younger priests are really active in doing that — I’m talking about priests ordained five years or less,” he said.

Bishop Senior said the diocese started “Quo Vadis” retreat days for high-school young men discerning their vocation that engaged 30 youths in summer 2013 and then more than 100 in summer 2014.

“What you have now is a pool of young men we’re working with and contacting, sending material to and inviting to other programs.”


Peers and Parents Key

Another key finding in the CARA survey was that while it took four people on average to encourage a successful vocation, almost half of the newly ordained said that they had been discouraged at one time by one or two people.

Deacon Emerson said some of his peers at Marquette “were shocked” that he would consider priesthood.

“Everyone else was very supportive,” he added, saying he was also encouraged by his parents, his four brothers and his three college roommates.

“They were supportive as long as that is what I wanted to do.”

Father Ihm noted that although parents set the foundation for their children’s vocations — CARA noted that 93% of 2015’s new priests were lifelong Catholics, and 84% were raised by a mother and a father who were both Catholic — their peers “exert a very strong influence,” particularly in their formative college years.

CARA’s survey found that friends (28%) were the most likely influence in discouraging a seminarian from his vocation, followed by a family member other than a parent (20%). Only one in 10 reported discouragement from a father or mother.

Today’s seminarians face more potential discouragement in pursuing a vocation than seminarians in decades past, added Father Barron, due to the “cloud of the sex-abuse scandal.”

“They’re going to get a lot more blowback from friends and family,” he said, adding that it should fill Catholics with “hope” that, despite this, increasing numbers of young men are answering the Holy Spirit’s call to priesthood.

But Church leaders such as Bishop Senior are also looking forward to Pope Francis’ arrival in the U.S. for the World Meeting of Families and hope that it will have a positive impact on future priestly vocations. “I believe it will generate an increased awareness of the opportunity that God may be offering some young men to respond now to the call for the priesthood,” Bishop Senior said.


Ordination Day

In the interim, Deacon Emerson and his fellow future priests are looking forward to ordination day and the ministry that lies beyond.

As Deacon Emerson said, “I’ve been working for five years now toward the priesthood, and to finally reach ordination — where the bishop will put his hands on me [as a blessing] — is going to be a glorious, amazing moment.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.


Priestly Stats

The top dioceses* with the most anticipated ordinands to the priesthood in 2015 are:

Archdiocese of Chicago                           14

Diocese of Paterson, N.J.                         14

Archdiocese of Newark, N.J.                    12

Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.                         11

Archdiocese of New York                          10

Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.   9

Diocese of Arlington, Va.                            8

Diocese of Lincoln, Neb.                            8

Archdiocese of Los Angeles                      8

Archdiocese of Portland, Ore.                   8

Diocese of Santa Fe, N.M.                         8

Archdiocese of Washington                        8

Diocese of Worcester, Mass.                     8

*Not all dioceses responded to the CARA survey.