According to the U.S. bishops’ conference, CARA compiles data every year for the Secretariat for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations.
The average age of ordination has continued a slight, yet steady downward trend in age from 1999, as the 2017 class average was 34 years, down from 36 years in 1999. 16 was the average age the ordinands first began considering the priesthood.
Most of this year’s ordinands – 82 percent – were “encouraged to consider the priesthood by someone in their life,” most often by a parish priest, although others reported being encouraged by a friend, family member, parent, teacher, or parishoner.
That “staggering number” should spur the faithful to be aware of their role in encouraging vocations, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, chair of the bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, stated in response to the survey.
“That statistic should motivate all the faithful to be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit, who may wish to use them to extend the invitation to ordained ministry,” he said.
Conversely, almost half the respondents (48 percent), including 60 percent of those in religious life, reported being dissuaded from entering the seminary by someone else.
Encouragement of young men to enter the seminary is indeed a “very important” factor in their decision, Gautier said, encouragement “from family, friends, the parish priest, the teachers in the school, all of that makes a difference.
Seminarians were more likely than the average Catholic child to be involved in their parish and attend Catholic school, according to several statistics taken together.
“Between 40 and 50 percent” of the respondents went to Catholic school at some point in their life – anywhere from kindergarten through tertiary education -- and almost six in ten (59 percent) received religious education at their parish, “for seven years, on average,” the study said.
They were much more likely than the average Catholic adult to attend Catholic school, especially as they grew older.
Half of respondents attended Catholic grade school (K-8), 11 percentage points higher than the national average of 38 percent among adult Catholics. 41 percent of respondents attended a Catholic high school compared to the national average of just 19 percent, and 40 percent attended a Catholic college, much higher than the national average of 10 percent among adult Catholics.
Many ordinands were involved in their parish, either in their prayer life and/or through ministries.
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Three-fourths were altar servers at their parish, and 52 percent of respondents served as lectors at Mass. 43 percent were Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Almost four in five regularly prayed at Eucharistic Adoration and almost seven in ten prayed the rosary.
And many were involved in group prayer, as almost half attended a regular prayer group or Bible study. Almost half “participated in parish youth groups,” and 34 percent were part of Catholic campus ministry or a Newman Center in college.
Regarding family life, the ordinands had an average of three siblings in their family, and are “very unlikely to be only children,” Gautier said. They are often the oldest siblings in their family, but in 2017 more respondents were middle children than were oldest children in their families.
Demographically, the class did not reflect an increasingly large Hispanic Catholic population in the U.S., and this is a challenge for vocations directors, Gautier acknowledged.
Seven in ten respondents were Caucasian, while only one-fourth were foreign-born. Meanwhile, the Hispanic Catholic population is growing, making up 34 percent of the overall Catholic population in the U.S. and 46 percent of Catholic Millennials, according to Pew Research in 2015.
“I think vocation directors are aware of the challenge and are actively working to increase vocations in the Hispanic community, but it’s not reflected in the numbers of ordinands, at least this year,” Gautier explained.