From the Bishops The changing profile of American seminarians

In April 2009, the Center for Applied Research (CARA) at Georgetown University published an important study titled “The Class of 2009: A Survey of Ordinands to the Priesthood.”


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the study to provide diocesan bishops, vocation directors, seminary faculty, parish priests and parishioners with information and insights into the changing profile of the American seminarian.

A number of facts emerged in the study that will help our own diocese better support vocational discernment in creative and systematic ways.


In 2009, 456 men were ordained to the priesthood in the United States. In the class of 2009, the youngest ordinand was 25 years of age and the oldest was 66. The average age of the newly ordained priests is 36, and more than half of the ordinandi are between 25 and 34 years of age.


Seventy percent of the newly ordained report their race or ethnicity as Caucasian, followed by 12 percent as Hispanic/Latino, 11 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 3 percent African/American.


Seventy-six percent of the newly ordained were born in the USA and on the average, those born outside the United States have been here for at least 13 years.


Ninety percent of the class of 2009 has been Catholic since birth. Among those who became Catholic in later life, the average age of conversion is 21. Ordinands who came from other faith traditions were divided evenly among the mainline Protestant traditions.

Eighty percent of the newly ordained came from homes where both parents were Catholic and 36 percent have a relative who is a priest or religious.


Sixty percent of the respondents had completed college before entering seminary. Half of the newly ordained had attended Catholic elementary school, 43 percent had attended Catholic high school and 42 percent Catholic college.


Two-thirds of the class of 2009 reported some full-time work experience prior to entering the seminary. Sixteen percent were educators, 10 percent hailed from a sales or marketing background and 10 percent had worked in accounting, finance or insurance. Only 3 percent of diocesan ordinands had served in the military.

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On the average, the newly ordained report that they were 17 years old when they first considered priesthood.


Eighty-five percent reported that they were encouraged and invited to consider priesthood by another priest, usually their pastor. Fifty-three percent were urged toward their vocation by a friend, 42 percent by a fellow parishioner and only 37 percent by their mother, 29 percent by their father and 22 percent by a school teacher.


Sadly, nearly half of those ordained this year reported that they were actively discouraged from considering priesthood by one or more persons, 59 percent by a parent or family member and 51 percent by a fellow classmate.


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The CARA study underscored the relationship between parish involvement and vocational discernment. Some 58 percent of the participants had engaged in a parish retreat, 38 percent were actively involved in youth or young adult ministry and 23 percent in campus ministry. Nineteen percent participated in the right to life movement. Three-fourths of the newly ordained had served at the Altar as acolyte or server, 58 percent as lector and 49 percent as Eucharistic minister.


Other parish ministries included RCIA team member, 12 percent; liturgy committee, 13 percent; parish council member, 11 percent; and campus ministry, 4 percent.


One in 10 responding ordinands had participated in a parish or high school vocation program before entering the seminary and fewer than one in 10 had participated in Operation Andrew. In the same vein, religious ordinands were more likely than diocesan seminarians to have attended a “Come and See” weekend (70 percent of religious ordinands as opposed to two-fifths of diocesan candidates).


As we consider vocations for the Diocese of Helena, we are seeing many of these trends come to fruition.


In the main, candidates are older and come to the seminary with greater work and life experience and emotional maturity. We see the need for a both/and approach to vocations, encouraging younger men in high school and college to actively engage in prayerful discernment while also cultivating the vocational leanings of second-career vocational candidates.


Each diocesan bishop is ultimately responsible for vocations in his respective diocese. The CARA study underscores the indispensible role that each parish priest plays in the vocation process, supported by parents, family, teachers and parish leadership.

There is plenty of anecdotal information to suggest that the abuse crisis across the land undercut the confidence of many parents to encourage their sons to consider a vocation to priesthood or religious life. I am convinced that the best long-term remedy for this obstacle is the joyful witness of happy and prayerful priests, and the careful selection of balanced and wholesome seminarians.


In the Diocese of Helena, we are blessed to have 12 men formally enrolled in seminary, ranging in age from 23 to 56. Some have come to us directly from college, or are presently enrolled in a college seminary program. Many have come to us from professional backgrounds, including education, medicine, business and computer science. A significant number of young men on our college campuses are also actively discerning a priestly vocation.


Our diocesan seminarians are exemplary individuals, whose love for Christ and the Church will undoubtedly inspire others to consider this vocation path.


In this Year For Priests, I ask our pastors, parish leaders and parents to redouble their efforts to pray for vocations to priesthood and religious life as we remember and celebrate the reality that priestly ministry is indispensible to the people we serve.

The CARA study underscores the reality that priestly vocation and encouragement belong to all, as we implore the Lord to send new workers into the harvest.


Gracious and loving God,

in your unfailing love you provide

ministers for your Church.

We pray for those whom you call

to serve the Church of the Diocese

of Helena as priests.

Inspire in them a generous response.

Grant them courage and vision to

serve your people

May their lives and service call your

people to respond to the presence

of your Spirit among us

that, faithful to the Gospel and

hope of Jesus the Christ, we may:

announce glad tidings to the poor

proclaim liberty to captives,

set prisoners free

and renew the face of the earth.


O God, Father of all Mercies, Provider of a bountiful Harvest, send Your Graces upon those You have called to gather the fruits of Your labor; preserve and strengthen them in their lifelong service of you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Printed with permission from the Diocese of Helena, Montana.

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