home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page
Posted June 30, 2005

Where Are The Young Adult Catholic Men?
Some thoughts on the ongoing shortage of priests

From The Priest, Our Sunday Visitor
Francis Kelly Scheets, O.S.C.

Presently bishops are relying on three options to ease the shortage of priests: welcoming priests from other countries, closing several thousand smaller parishes and beefing up recruitment.

Writers and columnists are providing us with four more options: ordain our 15,000 permanent deacons to the priesthood, “welcome back” the 11,000 priests who have resigned, “open church doors” to married men or ordain women.

I propose an eighth option: read the signs of the times among young adult Catholics. We need to assess how bright and caring young adult Catholic men have been reading “the signs of their times.” I perceive three phases in the past 50 years. There was the “priest, doctor, lawyer” period after World War II; this was followed by the “embrace the world” period after the Second Vatican Council; and the end of the Cold War we have young adults seeking “public service” in nonprofit organizations.

During the first period, our “brightest of the bright” young men and women were encouraged to serve God and Church as a priest, brother or sister. And they responded! Seminaries and novitiates expanded or were built during the glory days of the 1950s and early 1960s. The popular image of the parish priest for these young adult Catholic men – the priest as leader – had been the work of those innovative urban pastors of the immigrant churches of the 1930s into the 1940s.

The large urban parish with its many social services and schools not only met the needs of Catholic immigrants — but also isolated them from the so-called dangers of contemporary American Protestant society. In 1950, one in every 10 young adult Catholic men, who had graduated from college, was studying theology to become a priest.

The “embrace the world” period came suddenly. In the three years, 1968 to 1971, most high school seminaries closed; college enrollment fell 41 percent. In those three years, theology enrollment dropped by one-fifth. Formation programs for Religious priests, brothers and sisters lost tens of thousands.

Secularization of Catholics

What happened? At the time, blame was laid on the secularization of Catholic society: consumerism, birth control (fewer children), the sexual revolution, and a myriad of other corrupting aspects of secular society.

Two events in the early 1906s opened windows on the world for young adult Catholic men: the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president and the 1962 opening of Vatican Council II by Blessed Pope John XXIII – his “window on the world.” Both events strongly suggested that it was time for Catholics to embrace the world, to leave the parish enclosure and its protective atmosphere, and move into mainstream society.

Increasing numbers of young adult Catholics were bent on obtaining college or university degrees, opening up new paths for leadership. For many, the perception of the priest as leader changed – never to revert to one of the big three of their parents: priest, doctor, lawyer. By 1970, one-out of every 40 young adult Catholic men who had graduated from college was studying for the priesthood.

The Decline

The decline in seminarians was not a “shot in the dark.” Theology school enrollment, in 2002, was below 3,300 – down 60 percent from 1968. Slightly less than one-fourth of those seminarians were foreign born; older men returning for a second career accounted for slightly over one-third, while young adult Catholic men numbered less than 1,400. By 2004, one-out of every 2,500 Catholic young men who had graduated from college was studying theology to become a priest.

The third phase began to open up with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and in Soviet Russia. The Cold War had ended. Coming changes in global communications throughout the 1990s were to create a real “global neighborhood” in a very few years. Communication satellites brought the immediacy of poverty, famine, malaria and AIDs, together with genocides in Angola, Rwanda and the Congo, into the homes of middle class Americans.

In 1995 Netscape brought the Internet, with immediate global access to Web sites around the world, to our desktop computers. By 2005 cell phones had become an important every day item, not just for tens of millions, but for billions of people around the world.

Millions of young adult Americans were becoming concerned. The annual survey of college freshmen by the Chronicle of Higher Education had found throughout the 1990s that over 41 percent of women and 34 percent of men, when asked what they wanted from a degree, selected “to influence social values.” Thirty-four percent of young adult Catholic men would mean 1.1 million were in agreement. Make no mistake. Young adult Catholics are concerned.

Change Urgently Needed

Many young adults, with their advanced education and household wealth, were having their outlook challenged. They began to question the poor distribution of goods of this earth. David Bornstein in his bestseller, How to Change the World (2004), found “more people today have the freedom, time, wealth, health and confidence to address social problems in bold new ways . . .People recognize that change is urgently needed.”

This concern for “addressing social problems” expressed itself in the phenomenal growth of service-oriented nonprofit groups in the United States. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) registered with the United Nations increased from about 6,500 to 45,000 — most of which wrestle with issues of peace and justice.

A 2000 CARA study of four generations found exceptional agreement about caring for the poor. On average, 80 percent of those four generations said it is “very important to what it means to be Catholic to help those in need.” Further, 54 percent of young adult Catholics would “be more likely to participate in parish life if there were opportunities to help the poor and needy.”

Duty to Apply Faith

Dr. Dean Hoge’s 2001 study, Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice, concluded “Young Catholics today believe they have a duty to apply their faith to improving human society.” A survey by the Archdiocese of Detroit, Catholic Survey, 2002, found 90 percent of its 94,400 respondents thought “helping the needy” to be their second “high or medium priority” for their parishes — second only to “strong religious education programs.”

With such responses from Catholics, the perception of the local pastor as a leader who “hears the cry of the poor” assumes considerable importance. It follows that what happens in the parishes registering our college educated Catholics would seem to be important.

Don’t think that celibacy is keeping the door locked. Sorry. Government data suggests that there are some 3.7 million single young adult Catholic men out there.

The news is good — our parishes are concerned for the poor. Catholic parishes collect millions of dollars annually to provide financial assistance to the missions, retired religious, the Holy Father, the bishops; Campaign for Human Development, etc. — which I estimated between $120 and $134 million in 2003. Many parishes have a Christian Service commission or committee concerned with assisting local poor and needy.

The work of Christian service too often suffers from a lack of professionalism: a part time or volunteer director and a lack of reliable data to measure what is happening. Further, accurate information reflecting the type and amount of goods and services provided is non-existent or not standardized, making it difficult for parishes to accurately tell their story.

In view of the growing concern for the poor throughout the world, it is important to wonder: How many of our parishes, which are home to our Catholic young adults, have sister parishes in an inner city or Appalachia or a third world country or, better still, in a third world city?

Sister Parishes

John Paul II, in a 1999 address to the bishops of the Americas urged them to develop “bonds of communion with local churches through education, exchange of information, fraternal ties.” CARA in a recent survey, had 1,350 parishes report having support relationships with sister parishes – in the states and in other countries.

What’s more CARA’s “supporting parishes” reported greater contributions than those parishes with no “fraternal ties” — contributions ranging from 46 to 86 percent greater. After all, money follows programs.

Priestly leadership will shine forth – but only from those parishes that show that they too care about peace and justice – and are doing something about it.

Dr. Dean Hoge’s survey of American priests in 2001 found a happy and contented priesthood. Among the priests, responding “certainly or probably yes” Hoge found: 94 percent are happy, taking all things together; 86 percent would reenter the priesthood, if they had to chose again; 70 percent would not marry, if celibacy became optional.

But being happy, doing it again, and content with celibacy are not attracting vocations. So what is missing? Vocations are out there. Many young adult Catholics are “seeking service, waiting to be welcomed.”