Vocations Surge

SAVANNAH, Ga. — 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., Alexandria, La., Knoxville, Tenn., Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., and Memphis, Tenn. The remaining four are located in the Midwest: Fargo, N.D., Duluth, Minn., 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 rolling.”

According to Father Stewart, those interested in pursuing a priestly vocation come to him only after having initial contact with a priest.

“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.”

A U.S. 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 Christ.”

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 American-born ordinands.

“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 the Church.”

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 the case.

“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 all.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.