Finding laborers for the harvest
June 21, 2021
On the first Saturday of June – this year June 5 – Catholics gathered as they do every year at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha. In most years they would witness one or more men pledging their lives to serve the Lord and his Church as priests at their ordination Mass.
But this year, no ordinations took place.
Instead, Archbishop George J. Lucas led a eucharistic prayer service to pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, concluding a week of such services, which began May 30 at parishes across the archdiocese.
Though recent years have seen between one and six men ordained, this year’s absence of ordinations is a reminder that “the harvest is plentiful, but laborers are few” (Lk 10:2).
Nationally, over the past five decades, the numbers of priests and yearly ordinations have both declined about 40%, according to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a social science research center that studies the Catholic Church at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Priests across the nation and in the Omaha archdiocese are reaching retirement age (70 in the archdiocese) faster than new priests are being ordained to take their place.
Several archdiocesan priests spoke with the Catholic Voice about these trends, societal and demographic factors affecting priestly vocations, and their hopes for the future.
The Omaha archdiocese has 109 priests plus 10 others from religious orders or other dioceses currently in active service, said Father Scott Hastings, vicar for clergy for the archdiocese.
“In 2040, of the 109, only 41 will be under 70 years old,” he said. “If we average one or two ordinations a year in the next 19 years, we would have from 60 to 79 priests, which would be 58% to 72% of our current numbers.”
“Throughout the projected period, the retirements outpace the ordinations, far and away,” he said.
The decline in numbers of priests, coupled with declining population in rural communities, has already necessitated the grouping of rural parishes with a shared pastor and in some cases, one or more associate pastors, to make the workload manageable for priests.
The decline in priestly vocations has been associated with various factors: the priest abuse scandal; a secularized, self-focused and materialistic culture; and a lack of support or outright discouragement from people close to young men who might otherwise consider the priesthood.
But for Father Hastings, the number one reason is a declining birth rate.
“People just aren’t getting married and having children at the same rate” as in the past, he said.
And that translates into fewer young Catholics, a portion of whom might consider priesthood.
“We don’t have a vocation crisis – we have a baptism crisis,” he said.
An overall decline in religious practice also plays a major role, he said.
“The number of Catholics in the United States and in the archdiocese may be increasing, but the number of Catholics who go to Mass is decreasing,” Father Hastings said. “So, just as practice wanes across all faiths, you can expect that those who engage ministry as a serious, credible option for their life is going to decrease.”
He also cited the aging of the baby boom generation, which will drive both priest retirements and decreasing Mass attendance. “If you look at the number of practicing Catholics in some parishes, when the baby boomers are gone, who will be there?”
Father Joseph Taphorn, a priest of the archdiocese who is now rector and vice president of The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, Minnesota, believes that the erosion in Catholic culture has had an effect.
“I do think the influence of the world has, in many ways, weakened the faith and the practice of the faith,” he said. “Several generations ago, it was more common, more supported and more expected that Catholic families would produce a priest. It’s probably harder now for young people to be introduced to a life of discipleship and maybe to imagine being a priest.”
And for those who may be discerning a call and enter seminary, some grapple with issues that affect their ability to successfully complete their personal and spiritual formation, such as smartphone addiction, pornography, anxiety and depression, said Father Andrew Roza, director of vocations for the Archdiocese of Omaha.
To address such concerns, and in response to the clergy abuse crisis, seminary admissions have become more selective, he said.
If, in an average year, the Omaha archdiocese receives six to 10 applicants, two-thirds of them might be accepted, Father Roza said.
And since a goal of their formation is to discern whether their perceived call to the priesthood is genuine, there is always a certain amount of attrition, he said.
SIGNS OF HOPE
All the priests interviewed agreed that helping men hear God’s call to the priesthood depends on an active life of faith, plus support and encouragement from people close to them.
Opportunities to become active disciples for the Lord plant the seeds for vocations, said Father Paul Hoesing, an archdiocesan priest who is vice rector for formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, where six of the Omaha archdiocese’s 20 seminarians are currently studying.
“We’re seeing wonderful fruits from organizations like FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students),” he said. FOCUS and similar evangelization groups “feed vocation efforts.”
Father Roza echoed that sentiment.
“Thankfully, there are still a lot of really good things happening with young people. It’s not all bad news by any stretch of the imagination.”
In the Omaha archdiocese, the presence of two Newman Centers – one at Wayne State University in Wayne, and the St. John Paul II Newman Center near the University of Nebraska at Omaha – have created environments where young people can nurture their faith instead of losing it during college.
In fact, the archdiocese currently has three seminarians through the St. John Paul II Newman Center since it opened in 2016, Father Roza said.
Father Ralph O’Donnell, pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Omaha, points to statistics from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) that show the decline in vocations having leveled off nationally.
After falling significantly from the 1960s through the ’80s, enrollment numbers for both college seminaries and theological seminaries in the U.S. have remained relatively stable since the 1990s, said Father O’Donnell, who served recently as executive director for the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations of the USCCB in Washington, D.C.
In the Omaha archdiocese, the numbers of seminarians has trended down somewhat since the 1990s, from a high of 41 in both major and minor seminaries from 1996 to ’98 to the current low of 20, with most annual enrollments being in the 20s and 30s in most years.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
To see priestly vocations rebound and grow, young men need to be nurtured in the faith, given good examples, and be supported, encouraged and invited, the priests said.
Father O’Donnell said that men who become priests were often encouraged by individuals close to them – parents, a parish priest, friends at work, teachers or youth ministers.
“There’s a whole array of people that are encouraging this kind of awareness in the lives of those that are discerning,” he said. “So maybe we’re not talking enough about our faith, the importance of the sacraments and the priesthood in our life as Catholics to others that Christ may be calling.”
Father Hastings also stressed the importance of the nurturing and example of parents.
“Parents will often say, ‘I took my kids to Mass, they went to CCD.’ But that’s assembly line stuff,” he said. “Let your children see you pray, let them see your devotion.”
“The number one thing is, dads need to hand the faith on to their sons. The simplest magic for that is to have dads spend time with their sons, take them, from time to time, to daily Mass, or take them to help at the parish,” he said.
“The priesthood is an experience of fatherhood, so you model that as a father,” he said.
“In the end, God keeps calling,” Father Taphorn said. “If we can create an environment in our dioceses, parishes and families where young people are formed in discipleship and are taught how to pray, it’s going to bear fruit.”
The July 16 issue of the Catholic Voice will feature a section on vocations to religious life. Stories will include profiles of young women from the archdiocese who have discerned such a call, including one entering a cloistered monastery.