I’m getting ready to head north for the May 15 priestly ordinations of five friends who are Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. As I do so, I find much that’s encouraging in the new stats released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops about the 480 men about to be ordained as America’s newest priests. And you “numbers wonks” will be well rewarded if you check out these findings compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
They show, for example, that this year’s typical ordinand is:
YOUNGER: On the average he’s 34 years old, similar to the past five years but younger than the men who were being ordained in the previous three decades.
DEVOUT: Before entering the seminary, 70% already were accustomed to praying the rosary frequently and 65% were taking part in Eucharistic adoration often. And it’s a strong bet that this year’s new priest was an altar boy (71%). More than one in five (21%) also attended World Youth Days in far-off places like Germany and Australia. And a surprising 8% of America’s new priests also attended the summer conferences for high school students sponsored by Franciscan University of Steubenville each summer.
DEVOUT UPBRINGING: A significant number of the new priests only became Catholic as adults (8%) and these include an Anglican priest, an Episcopal priest, and a Lutheran, Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian minister. But the vast majority of ordinands are cradle Catholics: raised from infancy in a Catholic family consisting of a Catholic mother and father (82%) and more than two siblings (52%). A very significant 24% come from families of five children or more, 13% are one of four siblings and 16% are one of three siblings. Less than 1% were an only child.
EDUCATED in the FAITH: Keeping in mind that only 7% of US Catholic adults went to Catholic college, it is revealing that 39% of this year’s new priests did. But for many, their foundation in the faith actually began much earlier in a Catholic elementary school (41%), a Catholic high school (39%) or Catholic homeschooling (4%). But, as noted above, the very best incubator of priestly vocations is a strong Catholic home.
WELL EDUCATED IN GENERAL: 60% had completed an undergrad college degree before entering the seminary. About 1 in 6 — 17% — had already earned a graduate degree before entering seminary.
As Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis points out, “The role of the family, parish priest, friends, and youth ministry are evident in the results” and there’s strong evidence “that the involvement of youth in the Church’s activities, especially the liturgy, has a positive impact for their choice of a vocation.” And Father Shawn McKnight, Executive Director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations makes a similar point: “The members of the ordination class of 2011 report that they have had a long-term connection and involvement with the Church.” He also noted that 66 percent of the class reported that their vocations were encouraged by their parish priest.
Other interesting facts include the race, ethnicity and national origin of these men. More than two-thirds are white (69 percent), with 14% Latino 10% Asian and 5% black. One-third were born outside the United States with the largest numbers coming from Colombia (5 percent), Mexico (4 percent), Poland (4 percent), Vietnam (4 percent) and the Philippines (2 percent).
Also, 8% served in the military, and 19% had a parent with a career in the military.
It’s also interesting that while many received vocation encouragement from a parish priest (66%), a mother (42%) or a father (27%), many of them were being given the opposite message as well by a parent (52%), priest (20%) or religious (8%) who tried to discourage them from entering religious life. The fact that so many experienced that kind of vocation discouragement may not be entirely a bad thing: it offers some reason to hope they have both the strength of character and the experience in standing up to trials that they’ll need as they confront the challenges that always still lie ahead.