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Signs of Encouragement for U.S. Vocations

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, the head of the U.S. bishops’ committee on vocations, believes Catholics should be encouraged by great signs of hope for the future of the priesthood in America.

In a December 15th story by Catholic News Agency, Archbishop Carlson noted that while there remains a “great need for more seminarians” in the United States, several recent “positive trends” in seminary enrollment should “give us hope as a people of faith.”

The archbishop said that Apostolic Visitations in 2005 revealed that the vast majority of diocesan seminaries throughout the country are “healthy houses of discernment and formation,” filled with seminarians of a “very high caliber,” who bring with them “a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and talents.”

For the rest of the story, click here.

Welcome to America

The Detroit Free Press published this article last week on the influx of foreign-born priests in the United States to help compensate for the relative shortage of American-born priests.

In 2011, about one-third of priests ordained in U.S. Catholic dioceses were foreign-born, up almost 50% from 1999, according to data Georgetown University compiled for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The number of foreign-born seminarians has varied between 20% to 30% over the past decade.

The article says that of the 293 priests serving at metro Detroit parishes, more than 50 are foreign-born, from countries such as India, Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines, Cameroon, Poland, and Ireland.

Bands of Brothers

Hermits of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel in Texas

Last week the National Catholic Register published an article entitled “Surprising Revival for Men in Religious Life,” which the emergence of new religious communities for men despite the sharp overall decline in the number of men in consecrated life.

Michael Wick, the executive director of the Institute on Religious Life, was quoted at length in the article. He affirmed that there are many young men today who take religious life seriously and who joyfully accept the necessary sacrifices that are a part of it.

Wick addressed the popular misconception that religious brothers are men who are not smart enough to be priests: “Catholics tend not to have a problem with women religious, but when it comes to non-ordained men religious, they are a bit uncertain. What they might not realize is that a religious brother has just as legitimate a consecrated vocation by striving to be a brother to all.”

Wick sees the various thriving men’s communities as unique expressions of the Holy Spirit in the Church. “There are so many different charisms,” he said. “We have the older, more established orders, newer communities in the tradition of an older order, and then altogether new orders. There’s something for everyone, but a common thread among the communities doing well is their faithfulness to the Magisterium.”

American Deacons

The online edition of Catholic World Report published this month an interesting report on the permanent diaconate by Jeff Ziegler, fittingly entitled “Servants of the Lord.”

Vatican II (1962-65) expressed the hope that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy” in the Latin rites, especially in mission territories.

Ziegler summarizes the subsequent history:

“In 1967, Pope Paul VI issued general norms for the restoration of the permanent diaconate where requested by episcopal conferences. More than four decades later, 46 percent of the Church’s 37,203 permanent deacons serve in the United States, according to figures published in the 2011 Catholic Almanac, while an additional 5 percent serve in other parts of North America. A third of the Church’s deacons minister in Europe, 13 percent in South America, and approximately 1 percent each in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. There are more permanent deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago than in all of Africa and Asia combined.”

Ziegler then gives interesting statistics on “deacon rich” and “deacon poor” dioceses in the United States. Interesting, one of the “deacon poor” dioceses Ziegler cites in his article is my own Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. However, the most recent figures Ziegler had at his disposal did not include the 17 deacons ordained in the Archdiocese’s first class six months ago.

Ziegler also notes that the Church’s theological understanding of the diaconate is beginning to deepen in recent decades:

“Catholic teaching on the diaconate, while not as fully developed as magisterial teaching on the episcopate or the priesthood, has not been lacking over the past 50 years. The Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI’s 1967 apostolic letter on the restoration of the permanent diaconate, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church all briefly summarize the ministry of the deacon; Blessed John Paul devoted three general audiences to the diaconate in 1993, and Pope Benedict delivered an important address on the diaconate in 2006. In 1998, two Vatican congregations issued documents on the life, ministry, and formation of permanent deacons, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a national directory devoted to the same topics six years later.”

Most recently, Bishop Alexander Sample published for the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan this past June “The Deacon: Icon of Jesus Christ the Servant,” a 19-page pastoral letter—perhaps the lengthiest and most thoughtful examination of the diaconate by an individual bishop in the deacon-rich United States.

While the information in the article is excellent, it remains for chancery offices around the country to make sound pastoral decisions as to how to best implement the ongoing restoration of the permanent diaconate. Ziegler’s statistics dispel the still-prevalent notion that the promotion of the diaconate somehow undercuts the promotion of vocations to the priesthood.

At the same time, the Church is already benefiting from the advances in diaconate formation that have been put into place in recent years. She will further benefit from an enhanced understanding of the deacon’s three-fold munera of word, liturgy, and charity, which are summed up in the call to serve the people after the manner of Jesus Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life for others.

2011 Ordinations by the Numbers

This week the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made public its annual survey of newly ordained priests, conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a Georgetown University-based research center. The Class of 2011: Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood surveys the men being ordained priests for U.S. dioceses and religious communities this year.

“One important trend evident in this study is the importance of lifelong formation and engagement in the Catholic faith,” said Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations.  “The role of the family, parish priest, friends, and youth ministry are evident in the results.”

Most of the findings weren’t all that surprising or noteworthy to me. However, there are three things that caught my attention:

(1) The new priests are a little younger. The average age of this year’s ordinands is 34. Not only that, but two-thirds of all the ordinands are 34 or younger. The religious order priests raise the average a little bit, as they also typically go through their postulancy and novitiate before beginning their seminary studies.

(2) Vocations come from larger families. Families with at least three kids are now considered “large families.” Seventy-seven percent of the new priests come from families with three or more children. In fact, 37% come from families with five or more children. It’s by no means a “cause and effect” thing, but the numbers here do not lie: Large, intact, faithful Catholic families provide the best possible soil for priestly and religious vocations.

(3) Websites help. Twenty three percent of all respondents to the survey said that their discernment was influenced by websites. Even more, 37% of religious order priests were so influenced. I realize this is a little self-serving, but the survey nonetheless suggests that vocation websites and blogs can be most helpful tools in fostering vocations.

For the complete report, click here.

Vocations in Japan

Last week, the Holy See’s Press Office announced the appointment of two new bishops in Japan:

–Appointed Fr. Paul Sueo Hamaguchi, pastor of the cathedral church of Takamatsu, Japan, as bishop of Oita (area 14,071, population 2,376,414, Catholics 6,288, priests 50, religious 228), Japan. The bishop-elect was born in Higashi Shutsu, Japan in 1948 and ordained a priest in 1975.

–Appointed John Eijro Suwa of the clergy of Osaka, Japan, moderator and pastor of the pastoral zone of Kochi Takamatsu, as bishop of Takamatsu (area 18,903, population 4,031,481, Catholics 5,100, priests 46, religious 84), Japan. The bishop-elect was born in Kobe, Japan in 1947 and ordained a priest in 1976. He succeeds Bishop Francis Xavier Osamu Mizobe, S.D.B., whose resignation from the pastoral care of the same diocese the Holy Father accepted, upon having reached the age limit.

My first thought on reading about these appointments was to pray for the new bishops as they begin their episcopal ministry amidst the immediate aftermath of the horrific happenings in their native country.

My second thought was wonderment at the universality of the Church.

But then I took a closer look at the numbers. Here in the United States we have approximately 68 million Catholics, well over 20% of our country’s population. However, we have only about 46,000 priests and 60,000 or so religious. Both of those figures are less than 0.1% of the total number of Catholics.

As you can readily see in the above information published by the Vatican, the two Japanese dioceses that received new bishops have miniscule Catholic communities in comparison to the total population of the diocese. However, nearly one percent of the Catholics in those dioceses are priests, and more than one percent are consecrated religious.

Is that significant? Well, several parishes here in Kansas City have 5,000 or more Catholics. If we had priests in the same proportion as Japan, we’d have 50 priests per parish, with over 130 consecrated religious. Not too shabby! 

As we continue to pray for the people of Japan and contribute to relief efforts, let us also continue to pray that the Church in Japan, originally evangelized by the great Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier, will see a new springtime of faith and holiness.

Looking for Nuns in All the Right Places

In recent weeks we have offered some commentary on the February 2, 2011 CARA report on the profession class of 2010.

Today at the National Catholic Register blog, Tim Drake offers additional commentary on the report. 

Drake cites one Church source, corroborated by other studies, who says that the CARA report ignores the ‘elephant in the room,’ namely, “the rather obvious fact that religious communities that preserve traditional elements such as the habit, common prayer, communal life, focused apostolates, and strong affirmation of Church teaching, are doing well in comparison to orders that do not.”

Drake also notes that the CARA report does not examine the difference in those joining orders associated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) versus those joining the smaller Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR). A 2009 study showed that just 1% of religious orders associated with the LCWR have more than 10 women in the process of joining, whereas among the CMSWR, 28% reported having 10 or more candidates.

Priestly Vocations on the Rise

Last week the L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, released some statistical data on the Catholic priesthood as of the end of 2009. The complete report is expected any day.

The principal finding is that there were 410,593 priests worldwide in 2009, up over 5,000 from the previous decade, an overall increase of 1.4%.

The news isn’t bright on all fronts, however. For one thing, while the overall number is up, there are now 5,000 fewer religious order priests than a decade ago, representing a decrease of 3.5%. Fortunately, the number of diocesan priests grew by 10,000, representing an increase of 4%.

Also, here in the United States, there was a 7% decrease in diocesan priests and a 21% decrease in religious order priests over the past ten years The numbers were similar for Europe. As has been the case for some time, the growth has primarily taken place in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.

For more information, click here.

USA Today on Religious Vocations

In this article, the USA Today comments on the CARA report earlier this month on women religious who took their final vows in 2010. The article focuses on the disappointing statistic that more than half of the sisters were discouraged by a family member in pursuing their vocation.

In most families that I’ve encountered, the problem is that religious vocations are not adequately valued. Contraception, the natural but at times inordinate desire for grandchildren, lukewarm faith, poor formation, and secular values are but a few of the factors that come into play, along with the normal emotions that go with having a loved one more away, potentially forever.

Maybe in the cases in which the family isn’t on board with the decision, the young woman’s vocation may be a catalyst for the conversion of the family . . .

2010 Profession Class, By the Numbers

What do we know about the women religious in the United States who made their final vows this past year?

Plenty!

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) released a report last week on the women who professed perpetual vows in 2010. This report, commissioned by the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), contains an overwhelming amount of statistics and demographic data.

Here, I will provide a “top ten” list of findings that I found most significant:

(1) 77% of the sisters have three or more siblings (the average was five), while only one sister reported being an only child.

Need I say any more about the critically important role of large Catholic families as fertile ground for religious vocations? The generosity of Catholic parents who are open to life speaks volumes to their children.

(2) Prayer matters.

74% had attended a retreat prior to entering the community, and two-thirds of them prayed the Rosary and participated in Eucharistic adoration on a regular basis before entering religious life. While this is a positive stat, I hope that the other one-third picked up these religious practices after they joined! 

(3) 52% reported that they were encouraged by other religious to consider religious life.

And nine out of ten reported that they were encouraged by someone in their life. This stat shows the importance of inviting others to “come and see,” and of supporting them in their discernment process. This is especially important in light of the next item.

(4) 66% reported that they were discouraged from considering a vocation by one or more persons.

Even more, 51% reported that they faced opposition within their own families! It makes one wonder how we can make families a more hospitable seedbed for vocations. Certainly a renewal of faith and sense of vocation among Catholic parents is crucial if we are to reverse this trend. 

(5) 78% had already completed some college, and 59% had already graduated from college at the time they entered the religious institute.

The new sisters are well-educated, not only for work in education or health care, but other fields as well. The one balancing factor is that this goes hand in hand with older vocations, as the median age of the sisters is 44.

(6) Kudos to Franciscan University!

Six percent reported that a youth conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville played a role in their religious vocation. Makes me proud to be an alumnus.

(7) World Youth Day.

A staggering 20% of the sisters reported that they participated at a World Youth Day prior to entering their religious community. Memo to pastors: Keep these pilgrimages in the budget!

(8) The median age at which the sisters began considering a possible vocation to religious life was 18.

The mean was 20, as some older vocations skewed the average. This points to the critical importance of college campus ministry and evangelization programs like the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).

(9) 51% attended Catholic elementary school and 25% attended Catholic high school.

This figure isn’t that impressive to me. Where did all the others go? At some point, it would be useful to distinguish between those who were homeschooled by Catholic parents versus those who attended public or non-sectarian private schools.

Still, the figures here are above the national averages for Catholics in the United States. Since Catholic schools continue to be such a significant source of religious vocations, the ongoing religious formation of Catholic school teachers must be a priority. Also, in light of (3), I think the more religious we have in the Catholic schools, the more likely it is that the school will foster religious vocations.

(10) 84% of superiors reported no new religious professions, and another 13% reported only one.

That means 311 of the communities that participated in the survey did not have anyone take final vows. Many of those communities are aging and have not had many vocations in recent years. While it’s a fact of Church life that some religious communities die out and others spring up, I found the numbers this year a bit sobering. So let’s get busy, people! All of us have the duty to pray for vocations to the religious life, and to support those who have already entered. 

Beyond all the numbers, though, the most important consideration is that we have all these beautiful sisters who have now consecrated their lives completely to Christ. What a blessing for them, and for the Church!