As a kid, Timothy Pfander probably never thought of becoming a priest. He grew up without a formal religion, and became a Lutheran in his adult years, before converting to Catholicism. This year, he was ordained for the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama.
Patrick Forsythe was over 60 years old when he was ordained for the same diocese this year. After 40 years in medicine, when most doctors start dreaming of retirement, he studied for the priesthood.
Fr. Pfander and Fr. Forsythe are only two of a number of priests, whose faith journeys and vocation stories are becoming more common in today’s U.S.Church.
That’s what a new report, issued by sociologist Dean R. Hoge of the Catholic University of America Life Cycle Institute, suggests. According to the Report on Survey of 2004 Priestly Ordinations, men ordained to the priesthood today are older, more educated and come from more varied cultural, religious and professional backgrounds than in years past.
“These men… reflect the richness of the Church in our country,” said Bishop Blase Cupich, interim chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Vocations. “They are faithful, dedicated and committed men.”
The report, based on 336 respondents from 126 dioceses and 32 religious orders, shows three significant trends among new priests since Hoge began his research in 1998.
Since 1998, the average age at ordination rose from 34.8 to 37. While the mean age for the ordinands is increasing (three percent were over 60), 49 percent were under 35, and 22 percent were under 30.
The level of education, prior to entering seminary, rose as well. In 1998, 30 percent had less than a bachelor’s degree; in 2004, that number was only 22 percent. The percentage of men who had a graduate degree before entering seminary rose from 13 to 28 percent.
In addition, the percentage of foreign-born men entering the priesthood in the U.S. rose from 24 to 31 percent – most of these are from Vietnam, Mexico, the Philippines and Poland.
Hoge noted that 12 percent of this year’s class was Hispanic, and increase from 1984, when another study found that seven percent were Hispanic. However, Hoge underlined, the figure is still lower than the percentage of Hispanics in the current U.S. Catholic population, estimated at 25 to 30 percent.
On the other hand, the 12 percent of new priests who are Asian or Pacific Islanders is higher than the estimated two to three percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. Catholic population.
The report also reveals that these new priests come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Twenty percent were educators; nine percent were in engineering and computer programming, and seven percent were in church ministry. Another seven percent were in the military, and four percent were in law or law enforcement. Still others were legislative assistants or trade union leaders and social activists.
Some priests grew up in other churches and converted to Catholicism as adults. Others belonged to a religious order before studying for the priesthood.
In addition, the majority of seminarians were involved in parish ministries – primarily as altar servers, lectors, and eucharistic ministers – before entering seminary.
Largest number of priests in decades
The largest numbers of ordinations in 2004 were in the archdioceses of Chicago and Newark, which each ordained 14 men. The Archdiocese of New York ordained 13.
Some smaller dioceses marked a significant increase in the number of ordinations. The Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, ordained five men, ranging in age from 29 to 54. The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, ordained six, the largest group in 20 years. The Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, ordained seven, its largest number in 10 years.