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Posted June 26, 2008

Sister Margaret John Kelly DC has put together the following summary of studies on vocations to the priesthood and religious life. If you know of others that aren’t included here, I would deeply appreciate it if you gave me the names of them. I will then pass them onto Sister Kelly. Please send to Hemrick@wtu.edu Many thanks.

Review of Studies on Vocations
to the Priesthood and Religious Life

Sister Margaret John Kelly DC

While individual dioceses and religious institutes have collected data on recruitment, formation and retention experience within their membership, and national organizations have produced statistically descriptive reports, few studies beyond the demographics of vocations are available. To date, research on priestly vocations exceeds that on brothers’ and sisters’ vocations. There has been little attention to the more complex areas of motivations, expectations, points of attraction, discernment , cultural values, religious practice, family influence, lifestyles, mentoring, ecclesiological perspectives, and attitude to Church teaching of persons entering the priesthood and consecrated life. However, as the cohorts of priests, brothers and sisters within the Church in the US continue to decrease because of deaths, withdrawals, and fewer entrants, this research deficit has become more apparent and compelling. The early resignations of priests, as well as the early withdrawal of sisters and brothers from institutes, are drawing attention to formation, of course, but also to the discernment and admission process as well as to the influence of the current cultural context, both ecclesial and secular. Furthermore, the recent CARA report announcing that Hispanics will soon comprise more than half of US Catholic teens has also suggested that a differentiated approach to ministry and vocational work may be required .

Two research institutes The Life Cycle Institute at the Catholic University of America and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University have taken leadership in the study of Church issues including vocations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has supported vocational research both at the Conference and in collaboration with external researchers. In addition, the National Religious Vocation Council and the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors as well as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men collaborate with and encourage major research endeavors.

The Life Cycle Institute is “a community of scholars and researchers engaged in the academic analysis of contemporary public policies that concern Catholic social thought”. While the Institute’s emphasis has not directly focused on the motivational, experiential, and environmental factors which nurture vocations, their work does provide valuable insight into priesthood within the US culture and offers statistical data. The Institute has produced several studies on the priesthood, especially on the seminary experience. In Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years (NCEA, 2006) they report on the findings of two surveys of priests in America in 1990 and 2005. They study the seminary experiences and early ministry of diocesan and religious priests and offer recommendations to those responsible for priestly formation. Dean Hoge, a long term researcher at the Institute, in collaboration with Jacqueline E. Wenger, produced Evolving Visions of the Priesthood: Changes from Vatican II to the Turn of the Century (Liturgical Press, 2003). This study describes those changes which have been derived from the four surveys of priest done in 1970, 1985, 1993, and 2001. This study offers a context for the varying perspectives on worship and ecclesiology within the Church and their influence on different generations and their vocational choices. Dean Hoge, also collaborated with Jacqueline Wenger of Duke University to produce Pastors in Transition,(Eerdmans, 2005) a survey and study of more than 900 fulltime local church ministers who left ministry.

The Life Cycle Institute has also produced International Priests in America: Challenges and Opportunities (Liturgical Press, 2006) in which Dean Hoge and his collaborator Fr. Aneidi Okure report on these new missionaries statistically and experientially. The survey includes the views of laity, diocesan leaders, parishioners and the priests themselves and summarizes the challenges and opportunities of this increasing phenomenon, which actually is not new but a part of the Church since its colonial days.

The Life Cycle Institute has also sought information on the degree to which college students consider a priestly and religious vocation. Consistent with the design of the program “Called by Name’’ which is in place in some dioceses, researchers found that a personal invitation frequently is the trigger for consideration of a religious vocation, obviously the first and essential step in the discernment process. . Father Eugene Hemrick of The Life Cycle Institute and Washington Theological Union also found that the success of the “Called By Name” programs goes beyond the interpersonal as it is dependent upon an effective organizational structure, caring and competent leadership, and parish commitment.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University (http://cara.georgetown.edu) established in 1964 has as its mission “to put social science research at the service of the Church”. To fulfill this mission, CARA collaborates widely within Church and assumes leadership in major studies. In collaboration with the Secretariate for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org/cclv/contactus.shtml) they publish an annual survey of ordinands to the priesthood for both dioceses and religious institutes. For example, their 2008 survey includes basic information gathered on 84% of the potential 401 ordinands across the nation. (www.usccb.org/vocations/classof2008 . It also covers factors such as converts to Catholicism, attendance at Catholic schools and colleges, and the level of parish involvement before entering the seminary. Distinctions in findings between ordinands of diocees and religious orders are provided.

CARA also published in 1997 Bryan Froehle’s Survey of Catholic Youth and Parents connected with parish programs: Findings and implications for vocations; a study conducted for the NCCB Committee on Vocations with the Support of Serra International Foundation (CARA, 1997) www.usccb.org/vocatoins/research/survey.htm). This study involved 749 youths in 39 parishes in 25 dioceses . While the group reported very positive ratings on the priests and religious they knew, only 6% indicated that they were seriously considering a religious vocation, a rate relatively consistent for three decades. Only 18% reported having been invited to consider a vocation. Those who were not considering a vocation cited their desire to marry or have children as their reason even as they expressed admiration for those who make sacrifices to serve God. In 1998 , the bishops commissioned The Parish Background behind priestly vocations: findings from a national survey of pastors and recently ordained priests: a study conducted for the NCCB Committee on Vocations with the Support of our Sunday Visitor Institute. The study affirmed the value of interaction with priests, encouragement of families, and involvement in the parish as supportive of priestly vocations in general and peer and pastoral support as essential for young priests.

Most recently, CARA has been engaged by the National Religious Vocation Council (NRVC) (www.nrvc.net ) based in Chicago to undertake a three phased study of vocations to all religious institutes in the US, male and female, including those emerging congregations which are seeking canonical status. The first phase already underway seeks general personnel information. on all those who have entered institutes over the past fifteen years (number of entrants, ages, ethnicity, education, retention, etc.) as well as characteristics of the institute such as canonical status, habit, life-style, prayer-life, ministries, etc .) The second phase will focus on those within the entering cohort who have remained in the institute. Through written surveys and focus groups they will identify the factors which both attracted and sustained them as well as their hopes and challenges and rationale for choosing their institutes. The final integrating phase, which will be completed in 2009, will include site visits to institutes which have been successful in attracting and retaining candidates with a view to the development of best practices for recruitment, admission and formation.

The National Religious Vocation Conference (www.nrvc.net) found in its second annual survey (2008) that religious communities have reported an average of 30 percent increase in individuals in initial formation and 62 percent of the institutes reported an increase in vocation inquiries in the past year. The survey also suggested that distinctive dress, prayer, community, peace and justice efforts, and fidelity to the Church are motivators. Personal contact with members of the institute, spiritual direction, discernment opportunities, and web-based information are also assistive.

On the recruitment issue, NRVC ‘s Vision Vocation Guide (www.vocation-network.org which traditionally had a print feature of Vocation Match where readers could match their own vocational interests with specific congregations has successfully introduced a web version Vocation Match.Com which responds to youth’s technological preferences. To date, the web match profiles have yielded ten times the print version going from 600 annually to almost 6000. An earlier study commissioned by the US Bishops Committee on Vocations reported that there were then 90 active websites with 24 of the 193 diocesan vocations offices and 65 religious orders posting a website. Almost a quarter of them indicated that they have candidates for priesthood and religious life whose initial contact was the Web.

The value of personal inquiry and web-based resources is validated by anecdotal reports as well. The National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, (ERLINK"http://www.ncdvd.org"www.ncdvd.org) the diocesan priest counterpart organization to National Religious Vocation Conference, relates to the Secretariate for Clergy and Consecrated Life and Vocations at the USCCB . They affirm the value of technology to reach youth and supports the personal invitational approach to initiate vocational dialogue and further reflection. The Brooklyn Diocese “Strategic Action Plan for the Promotion of Vocations” includes five priorities based on a relational approach. The five priorities are: “To pray, to Evangelize, to Experience, to Mentor and to Invite.” That plan also includes a program of live call-ins to the Prayer Channel which will respond to callers’ particular questions but also will provide insights into the interests, concerns and questions of possible candidates. At the university level, the personal- interest approach is also being implemented. “Catholic Colleges that produce vocations” (MorleyICC@morleyinstittue.org) reports that Notre Dame University sponsors “ Corby Night” in which invited students meet with religious and seminarians for prayer, refreshments and the completion of a survey to ascertain their interest in vocations. At Catholic University, President David O’Connell invites participants to an evening of prayer which he feels needs to be an important component of the entire inquiry phase, although socialization is also part of the program..

In addition to mining the available research and general reports on vocations, many in the area of recruitment and formation of priests and religious are considering the applications of some of the findings of recent cultural studies. They are probing the culture-vocation relationship and especially the inter-generational issues.. Sr. Mary Charlotte Chandler, Director of the Center for the Study of Religious Life (www.religious-life.org) is in the process of compiling a bibliography on generational cultures and the Catholic faith. Dean Hoge, William D. Dinges and Mary Johnson have collaborated on Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (Notre Dame Press, 2001). This national survey which was supplemented by a telephone survey and by personal interviews with over 800 men and women across the country looks at European-American and Latino Catholic. William D’Antonio and Dean Hoge of the Life Cycle Institute collaborated with James Davidson and Katherine Meyer American Catholics: Gender, Generation and Commitment (Altimira Press, 2001). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005. ), authored by Christian Smith of Notre Dame and Melinda Denton presents a report of the surveys and in-depth interviews with teenagers of several denominations which reveal their religious literacy, personal values, morals, religious practice and spirituality choices. The chapter on Catholic teenagers is highly relevant to the vocation question but must be read within the context of the whole book to gain an understanding of the drivers in the youth culture which have penetrated the borders of the various religions. The National Study of Youth and Religion:Analysis of the Population of Catholic Teenagers and Their Parents (National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry, 2004 ) This is a nationally representative telephone survey of 3, 370 teenagers between 13 and 17 and their parents. This report includes 816 Catholic cases and probes Mass attendance, at risk behaviors, communication, devotions, etc. In “Can we Allow a New Generation to shape Religious life?”. Horizon (Winter,2007 , 16-30 ) Laurie Brink points out the clash of congregational cultures developed over many years with the hopes, desires and immediacy goals of youth.