During the month of November, the U.S. bishops’ conference asks Catholics to pray that young people will respond to vocational calls, especially to the priesthood and to religious life.
By the numbers, those prayers seem clearly needed.
The total number of seminarians in formation in the U.S., after stabilizing at around 5,000 in the mid 1990s, began to drop again over the last decade and is now below 4,000.
And the number of consecrated religious has been in a steady decline for the last 30 years.
To understand those numbers better — and to think about what dioceses, priests, and laypeople can do to foster vocations in the Church today — The Pillar spoke with Rhonda Gruenewald, the founder of Vocation Ministry, a nonprofit which aims to help dioceses “create a culture of vocations.”
Gruenewald told The Pillar that she came to her vocations ministry by happenstance.
In 2011, Gruenewald’s pastor asked her to help lead a vocations committee in her Houston parish.
A convert, Gruenewald said she wasn’t sure how a parish should work to foster vocations, so she started looking at available data: how many vocations there have been in recent years, how many are needed to sustain the Church, and how priests come to hear the call to the priesthood.
Her parish vocations committee began to achieve some success, and in late 2013, the Archdiocese of Houston asked her to use to write a booklet, as a guide for parishes in running a vocations ministry.
The booklet turned led to a book — “Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry” — and to a nonprofit organization, providing workshops on fostering vocations in dioceses around the country.
Gruenewald told The Pillar that the conventional wisdom is true: Asking young men whether they have considered the priesthood is an effective way of helping them find them their vocations.
A 2022 study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that 71% of newly ordained diocesan priests had been personally invited by their parish priests to consider a vocation to the priesthood.
High percentages of newly ordained priests also reported having been invited to consider the priesthood by friend, parents, and teachers.
Despite the data, Gruenewald has found in her workshops that fewer than 30% of priests say they have ever suggested to a young man that he consider becoming a priest. Most other Catholics say they have also not suggested to young people that they consider a vocation.
That might not just be about reluctance, as it turns out. It might be about availability.
With priests in many dioceses caring for multiple parishes, or consolidated parishes with several churches, fewer young men have direct relationships with their parish priests.
Without the example, encouragement, and invitation of a priest, young men may never take seriously the possibility of a vocation.
Using data from the Official Catholic Directory on the number of priests, ordinations, and registered Catholics per diocese, Gruenewald has built a data set showing how many ordinations per year a diocese needs.
This “ordinations needed per year” metric is based on the assumption that a diocese needs a number of annual ordinations equal to 2.4% of its current number of priests, and also equal to one annual ordination per 120,000 Catholics, in order to maintain an adequate number of priests to minister to Catholic parishioners.
According to that data model, none of the 21 dioceses with more than 750,000 Catholics reached the number of ordinations needed in 2019 to 2022.
Indeed, only five of the 21 largest U.S. dioceses even reached 50% of the needed number of ordinations.
By contrast, among the 52 U.S. smallest dioceses — those with fewer than 100,000 registered Catholics — 60% were meeting or exceeding the number of ordinations needed.
Much of the difference is due to the fact that large dioceses have a much higher ratio of parishioners to priests than small dioceses.
Among the 21 largest U.S. dioceses, the average ratio of parishioners to priests in 2022 was 7180 to 1. Among the smallest tier of dioceses, the ratio was only 1138 to 1.
If having a personal relationship with a parish priest is an essential part of the vocation journey for many young men, the lower ratio in smaller dioceses might explain a lot.
To explore that more, The Pillar mapped the percentage of ordination need met in the last five years, according to the data from VocationMinistry, against the number of registered parishioners per priest in each diocese.
The results certainly suggest a relationship:
The ratio doesn’t explain all the variation.
But statistical analysis would suggest that 20% of the variation between dioceses can be explained simply by the ratio of parishioners to priests.
(For data nerds: The r-Squared for the regression in our data — a measure of how predictive the relationship is — was 20%.)
These numbers will present a significant challenge for the Church in America in the years to come. Especially because over the last 30 years, a growing percentage of American Catholics have come to live in the largest dioceses.
But while more priests are most needed in the largest American dioceses, their share of U.S. ordinations is much smaller than their size would suggest.
While the 21 dioceses with more than 750,000 Catholic in 2021 accounted for 49% of the total Catholic population, they had only 14% of the diocesan ordinations.
By contrast, the 113 dioceses with 300,000 or fewer registered Catholics in 2021 totaled 55% of the ordinations of diocesan priests in 2021.
The smallest dioceses, with just 5% of the total Catholic population, had 25% of diocesan ordinations.
The data demonstrates a conundrum for leaders in the Church, as they contemplate the consolidation of parishes and even of dioceses.
If the least populous dioceses are producing the vocations, will consolidation in some cases actually make the vocations crisis worse? How can the largest dioceses — which are seeing their populations grow and their presbyterates shring — stem the tide?
Gruenewald urges that the techniques her ministry has studied might point to a way forward.
She pointed to recent results in the Diocese of Austin, Texas. After vocation ministry workshops encouraged people to invite young men to attend an annual vocations dinner, the number of attendees at the dinner tripled. More important, the number seminary applications in 2023 more than doubled from prior years.
With priests spread thinner in many communities, it will increasingly be up to laity to ask young people the question: “Is God calling you to the priesthood or religious life?”