Each year the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissions CARA to offer a detailed report on the hundreds of men from around the country who are up for ordination to the priesthood. (There are 595 men scheduled to be ordained this year; 411 of them completed the survey.) It’s a fascinating little study, and there’s a lot to learn from it, especially in terms of vocation work. I highly recommend reading the report for yourself, which you can find here. In the meantime, allow me to offer a few important highlights, most of which aren’t all that surprising.
Siblings: Almost all the ordinands in the Class of 2015 (96 percent) have at least one sibling. About half (53 percent) have two to four siblings, while one in five (22 percent) have five or more siblings. Only four percent of the ordinands in the Class of 2015 have no siblings.
Priestly vocations tend to come from big(ger) families, and that should surprise no one. Most parents want to be grandparents, and the chances of being a grandparent increase with each child. Parents with more children tend to be more supportive of encouraging a son to be a priest, as his siblings can provide the grandchildren. Too, parents with many children often tend to be non-contracepting, and therefore tend not to interfere when the Lord calls one of their sons to the seminary.
Birth Order: According to the CARA report, the ordinands of 2015 are slightly more likely to be the oldest child in their family, followed by the middle, and then the youngest. I don’t have much to say about this stat other than, at our seminaries in Cleveland, many of our seminarians are the oldest in their families, and when their families come up for a visit, it’s great to have so many young children running around the place.
Catholic Education: 51 percent of the ordinands attended Catholic grade school; 43 percent attended Catholic high school; 45 percent attended Catholic college. 7 percent were home schooled.
Consideration of Priesthood: The average age when the ordinands of 2015 first considered a vocation to the priesthood was 17 years old. This is another statistic that shouldn’t be too surprising. It’s during junior and senior year of high school when most young people begin to seriously think about their future. It’s also the time when they are applying to colleges. There are plenty of people who think that 17 is too young for a man to consider a vocation to the priesthood, but I find it funny that if a 17 year old wants to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a scientist, he finds plenty of encouragement.
At my first parish assignment, our young people received the sacrament of confirmation in their junior year of high school. Currently that same parish has seven men in the seminary. One day, if I become a pastor, I will likely move confirmation to the junior year of high school, because the age of 17 seems to be a very important time in the lives of young people, particularly in the life of faith.
Encouragement to the Priesthood: By far the parish priest (71%) was listed as the most encouraging person in the life of the ordinands of 2015 in their vocation to the priesthood. Friends (46%) came second, a parishioner (45%) third, mother (40%) was listed fourth, and dad (30%) was fifth.
Priests beget priests. There is no secret here. It’s very unlikely that a young man would ever want to be a priest if he never knew a good priest. When I offer admissions interviews for our seminary, I always ask the applicant to name three priests who have been influential in his life. Most of our applicants have a hard time naming only three. A joyful parish priest is the most important vocation tool that the Church will ever have.
Don’t underestimate the role of friends in encouraging priestly vocations either. Many young men tell me that friends from their high school or from their youth group recognized their vocation and encouraged it. If you have a friend whom you think would make a good priest, tell him so.
Many of today’s seminarians were what I affectionately call “church rats”. What I mean is that they were the kids who were always hanging around the parish. They were the teens who came to daily mass, would stop in to visit the priest, volunteered to teach CCD, and were active in the life of their home parish. Parishioners, if you see young men who fit this description, don’t be afraid to ask if they’ve ever thought about being a priest. So many of our men in Cleveland first considered priesthood because a fellow parishioner had the courage to ask the question.
Discouragement from Considering the Priesthood: Youth Ministers were the only people listed who offered no discouragement to the ordinands of 2015. I find that more and more, youth ministers are doing the kind of vocation work that religious men and women used to do when our grade schools and high schools were heavily staffed with men and women religious. Vocations directors ought to make good friends with youth ministers in their diocese, as they play an increasingly important role in the work of recognizing, fostering and maintaining priestly vocations.
Participation in Programs, Activities or Ministries: Speaking of youth ministry, leading this category with 46 percent of the 2015 ordinands is the Parish Youth Group. Take care of young people and young people will take care of the Church. (If you don’t see young people around your parish, be concerned.)
Participation in Parish Ministries: The two most popular ministries for the ordination class of 2015 prior to entering the seminary are Altar Server (78 percent) and Lector (51 percent). Altar Servers literally work side-by-side with the priest and are “close to the action” at Mass, and there has been a very long tradition of altar servers entering the seminary.
Nota Bene: 13 percent of the ordinands of 2015 were ushers/ministers of hospitality! (Ushers often get a bad rap, so this stat made my day.)
Prayer Practices: 70 percent of the ordinands of 2015 regularly prayed the rosary and participated in Eucharistic Adoration before entering the seminary. Again, I would be shocked if this stat surprised anyone who works regularly with young people. It’s rare to meet a joyful priest who doesn’t have a devotion to Our Lady and who doesn’t enjoy time before the Blessed Sacrament. The other prayer practices are equally non-surprising: Bible Study (47 percent), High School Retreats (39 percent), Lectio Divina (33 percent) and College Retreats (30 percent).
There are many more interesting stats to this study that I haven’t mentioned here that you can read for yourself.
CARA has done the Church a wonderful service in completing this report for the USCCB and there’s a lot to glean from it. The report is published for the benefit of the Church. We would be foolish to ignore it.