The Barren Fig Tree
A look at the severe decline in priestly vocations in the us northeast [and the names of some success stories]
Catholic World Report, October, 2010
As Catholics in many parts of the United States mourn parish closures because of priest shortages, the world’s priestly vocation boom is an underreported story. According to the Vatican’s statistical yearbook, the number of major seminarians worldwide rose from 63,882 in 1978, when John Paul II was elected pontiff , to 115,919 at the beginning of 2008—an increase of 81 percent, far outstripping world and Catholic population growth. During the same time period, however, the number of seminarians in the United States fell from 14,998 to 5,029, according to statistics published in The Official Catholic Directory—a decline of 66 percent.
Nonetheless, many of America’s dioceses are taking part in the worldwide vocation boom. The number of diocesan seminarians in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis more than doubled from 63 in 2003 to 148 in 2008—the highest number in the nation.
[Correction: That statement is not accurate. It appears that the author got his information from the National Catholic Directory where, beginning in 2006, the enrollment figures for seminarians began to include the numbers for the St. John Vianney college undergraduate seminary with the St. Paul School of Divinity where the courses in theology are taught to seminarians and ordination for most is the result. Enrollment figures for the School of Theology during the last ten years have been relatively even, in the 60s. Only a small number of dioceses even have "junior seminaries" these days.] Hat Tip to Fr. P.
The Diocese of Lincoln, with 43 seminarians and 93,989 Catholics in 2008, remains the nation’s most vocation-rich diocese, with a ratio of one diocesan seminarian for every 2,186 Catholics, a statistic that does not include the 54 religious-order seminarians who live in the diocese but will be ordained for the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Overall, the nation’s 20 most vocation-rich dioceses in 2008, based on statistics published in The Official Catholic Directory, were Lincoln, Tyler (Texas), Duluth, Wichita, Tulsa, Steubenville, Rapid City (South Dakota), Alexandria (Louisiana), Bismarck, Nashville, Mobile, Fargo, Memphis, Owensboro (Kentucky), Amarillo, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Covington (Kentucky), Lexington (Kentucky), Lafayette (Indiana), and Sioux Falls (South Dakota). . . .
In 2008, Las Vegas was the nation’s most vocation-poor diocese, ranking 176th with a ratio of one diocesan seminarian for every 175,000 Catholics. Overall, the nation’s 20 most vocation poor dioceses were Las Vegas, Rochester, San Diego, Honolulu, New York, Los Angeles, El Paso, Dallas, Metuchen (New Jersey), Rockville Centre (New York), Tucson, Laredo (Texas), Orange (California), San Bernardino, Santa Rosa (California), Fall River (Massachusetts), Manchester (New Hampshire), Detroit, Brooklyn, Buffalo, and Hartford. . . .
The de-catholicization of the Northeast
Amid the decline in Catholic population, the dioceses of the Northeast have a disproportionately difficult time attracting seminarians. The typical American diocese has one seminarian for every 14,300 Catholics; only five Northeastern dioceses have above-average success in attracting vocations. In 2008, the Diocese of Springfield (Massachusetts) was the United States’ 64th most vocation-rich diocese, followed by Paterson, New Jersey (69th), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (77th), Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania (80th), and Newark (81st). Three other northeastern dioceses (Erie and Allentown, Pennsylvania and Ogdensburg, New York) are treading water, as it were, with ratios of seminarians to Catholics slightly below the national average. The other 24 dioceses of the Northeast are drowning. . . .
Father Luke Sweeney, vocation director of the Archdiocese of New York (ranked 172nd), told CWR in 2007:
We live in the capital of the world, as Pope John Paul II said, and we are swimming upstream when it comes to promoting vocations in such a secular and materialistic culture and society. Commitment, a life of loving sacrifice, and doing things from the perspective of eternity rather than Wall Street cut against the air we breathe. New York is a tough nut to crack, even for such groups as the CFRs (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal) and the Sisters of Life who do well nationally and internationally, but not as well in New York City. . . .
Despite the challenges faced by the Church in the Northeast, the region is not vocation-poor everywhere. The Archdiocese of Newark under Archbishop John Myers [a priest of Opus Dei] enjoys the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics among the nation’s 13 dioceses with over one million Catholics. In 2008, the archdiocese had 104 seminarians—second only to St. Paul and Minneapolis. In four of the past six years, the archdiocese’s ordination class was the largest in the United States.
The Diocese of Springfield (Massachusetts), the northeastern diocese with the highest ratio of Catholics to seminarians, illustrates how a new bishop and vocation director can attract seminarians. In 2003, the diocese had 10 seminarians; the following year saw the resignation of Bishop Thomas Dupré and his indictment on two counts of child rape. Bishop Dupré’s replacement, Bishop Timothy McDonnell, appointed a new vocation director (Father Brian Dailey), and over the next four years the number of seminarians rose to 22.
Likewise, the Diocese of Paterson, led by Bishop Frank Rodimer since 1978, had only six seminarians in 2003 and was one of the most vocation-poor dioceses in the nation, ranking 168th. Bishop Arthur Serratelli succeeded him in 2004, and the number of seminarians grew exponentially to 39 in 2008. . . .
“We have encouraged prayer by everyone, especially prayer before the Blessed Sacrament,” the bishop [Serratelli] told CWR in 2008. “Where Jesus is loved and adored in the Eucharist, vocations follow. Also, we take every opportunity to speak about vocations and to invite young people to listen to God, who has a special call for each of them. Among the priests, we have tried to build up a stronger sense of priestly identity and joy. Our priests work hard and are generally happy. Ultimately, we trust in God. He will not be outdone in generosity.”
Father William Waltersheid, secretary for clergy and religious life in the Diocese of Harrisburg, attributes his diocese’s relative success in attracting vocations to the leadership of Bishop Kevin Rhoades, who led the diocese from 2004 until his recent appointment as bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. “The reasons for our increase of seminarians in the Diocese of Harrisburg,” he says, “[are] a bishop who made vocations a priority, a full-time priest vocation director, an organized program that promotes a culture of vocations, all the priests of the diocese promoting vocations, an example of a happy, fulfilled priesthood among the priests, [and] laity who support and love priests. . . .”
The Poorest of the Poor
“The Diocese of Rochester is known throughout the nation as one of the most liberal and modernist dioceses, where there has been a collapse of authentic Catholic catechesis and a policy of deliberately devaluing the priesthood in favor of the feminization of the liturgy and promotion of lay ecclesial ministries,” says James Likoudis, who served as president of Catholics United for the Faith from 1988 to 1994. “Rochester is the diocese where the architect of the sexual revolution in the Church (Father Charles E. Curran) remains a ‘priest in good standing’ despite his continuing to shred Catholic moral theology.”
Likoudis’ website (www.credo.stormloader.com ) includes doctrinal critiques of presentations by diocesan officials. The group of Catholics who write for Cleansing Fire(www.cleansingfiredor.com ), a blog devoted to the diocese, also documents their concerns about catechesis and the liturgy, posting parish bulletin excerpts and audio clips.
An open letter signed by 35 Rochester priests in 2004 lends credence to lay Catholics’ claims of widespread dissent. Joining 23 Chicago priests, the Rochester clerics protested the “vile and toxic language” used by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a 2003 Vatican document on homosexual unions.
In this climate, young men interested in the priesthood shy away from the diocese, according to some local Catholics. “There is a fear among some young men that the bishop will reject them, so they don’t even bother to test out their calling,” said one. “I know young men afraid to put their names out there for the diocese while Bishop Clark is yet in office on account of their orthodoxy,” adds another. “Some will go to other dioceses or religious orders and a few might just wait two years, but the process is not a friendly one. . . .”
As parishes also close—between 1970 and 2008, the number of Rochester parishes fell from 190 to 136—the diocese has pioneered a novel model of pastoral leadership in which pastoral
administrators govern while priests serve under their leadership as
“sacramental ministers” or “assisting priests.” Bishop Clark has even written a book outlining this model and its implementation in the Diocese of Rochester, titled Forward in Hope: Saying“Amen” to Lay Ecclesial Ministry and published last year by Ave Maria Press. A search of parishes listed on the diocesan website found that
15 non-priest pastoral administrators currently govern 27 parishes; 11 of the 15 are nuns or laywomen, one is a layman, and three are deacons. A pastoral administrator who governs two parishes— Sister Joan Sobola—is lauded on the Women’s Ordination Conference website as a pioneer proponent of women’s ordination. (Sister Sobola did not respond to a request to comment for this article. . . .)
“The entire concept of the pastoral administrator as implemented in the Diocese of Rochester is killing vocations,” says one lay Catholic. “The pastoral administrator directs pastoral care, pushes around priests, takes a directive role in worship, administers certain sacraments, delivers the homily, wears an alb, processes in with the priest and deacon, and sits next to the priest in the sanctuary. This creates confusion among the lay faithful about the role of pastoral administrator versus the role of priest. It also serves to discourage young men from answering the call. Very few men who possess any masculinity wish to be placed under the administration of a lay administrator.”
“When a priest becomes only a ‘sacramental minister’ and deacons or lay people do everything else, it makes the calling to the priesthood [appear to be] of little importance in the life of the Church,” adds another parishioner of a parish threatened with closure. “The priest isn’t a leader anymore. He’s only another cog in the wheel.” [One of the reasons boys don’t want to be servers in many parishes is that they are given nothing important to do either, just like “sacramental ministers” in Rochester, NY.]
Jeff Ziegler writes from North Carolina. [This is the fellow who recently wrote the nice profile of Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis for the Catholic World Report.]