If we’re to resolve the vocations crisis in the United States, it might be helpful to determine who’s seeking ordination already. A new study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University provides a trove of information that could explain precisely that.
The most interesting statistic may be the age at which 2019’s American ordinands first considered a vocation to the priesthood. Just 36 per cent of men responded that they were 18 or older. Meanwhile, 40 per cent were between the ages of 5 and 13. That suggests it would be in the Church’s interest to pique boys’ own interest at a young age. Recruitment to the holy priesthood can’t begin too young.
Traditionally, this is one of the points of altar-serving. Altar boys are, as Evelyn Waugh put it, apprentice-priests. And, sure enough, CARA finds that an impressive 78 per cent of this year’s ordinands had been altar boys at some period in their lives. Compare this statistic to the more modern roles for “lay participation,” such as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Just 44 per cent of ordinands reported acting as extraordinary ministers before they entered seminary.
Encouraging boys to serve at the altar appears to be key in bolstering the ranks of the holy priesthood. The most obvious obstacle to this goal is the abuse crisis. The stereotype of the pervert priest molesting his servers in the sacristy is one that is, unfortunately, not without some basis in reality. The sex abuse crisis hurts vocations – though we didn’t need more surveys to tell us that.
Catholic education also evidently plays a role in preparing young men to embrace their vocation. According to CARA, “between 38 and 47 per cent of all responding ordinands attended a Catholic school for at least some part of their schooling”. Yet the future of Catholic education is also gravely doubtful. The National Catholic Educational Association’s 2018-2019 report suggests that, “in the 10 years since the 2009 school year, 1,267 schools were reported closed or consolidated” – almost one in five. Meanwhile, just 258 schools were founded. Moreover, “the number of students declined by 403,168” – about the same proportion. We need hardly go into the matter of Catholic universities forsaking their Catholic identities. If Catholic education continues to collapse at its current rate, the priesthood will lose a fruitful source of would-be seminarians.
The ethnic demographic is also rather surprising. CARA claims that 72 per cent of new diocesan priests are white, while 14 per cent are Hispanic. And yet a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 59 per cent of Catholics are white and 34 per cent are Hispanic. It’s curious, seeing that America’s Hispanic population usually have stronger ties to their countries of origin, which are firmly Catholic both religiously and culturally. This is a group one would expect to yield more than its share of vocations when, in fact, the opposite is true.
This calls into question the theory that mass immigration from South America is a solution to the American Church’s demographic crisis. It’s often claimed that Hispanics will fill the pews being vacated by the descendants of European Catholic immigrants who began arriving several generations ago – the Irish, Italians, Polish, etc. Yet it may be that the spiritual apathy rampant in European-Americans has already begun to set in on our Hispanic co-religionists.
One group is pulling more than its weight, however. Although just 3 per cent of American Catholics are black, they yielded 6 per cent of seminarians in 2019. It’s still a relatively small number, but it would be fascinating to see a revival of the American Church begin with the African-American population.
Along with Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians (which CARA lumps together as one ethnic group), African-Americans are also more likely to become religious instead of diocesan priests. While the US Church is expected to remain predominantly white and Hispanic, we may see religious orders becoming bastions of black and Asian Catholics. Religious orders particularly hard-hit by the vocations crisis will no doubt bear this in mind as they find new recruitment methods.
Student loans are a chronic complaint among millennials, and not without good reason. It’s little wonder, then, that would-be seminarians often struggle to pay off their debts before entering seminary. After family members and (for religious priests) their order, the Knights of Columbus Fund for Vocations was by far the most-often cited source of help with loans.
Lastly, in what may simply be a coincidence, there’s a strong correlation between the branch of the Armed Forces one served in and whether one would become a religious or a diocesan priest. Of the two destinations, veterans of the Army and Marine Corps almost exclusively became diocesan priests, while Navy vets were much more likely to join religious orders.
So, who knows? If your cruise ship should ever capsize, your rescuer may well go on to become a Carmelite.