Priestly Vocations in America: Recent Trends

A survey of dioceses rich in seminarians and dioceses poor in them.

According to the Vatican’s statistical yearbook, there were 63,882 major seminarians worldwide when John Paul II began his pontificate in 1978; by the end of 2005, that number had grown to 114,439—an increase of 79.1 percent. During the same time period, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of American diocesan and religious seminarians in college and theological seminaries decreased from 9,021 to 4,603—a decline of 49.0 percent.

While priestly vocations have collapsed nationwide, several American dioceses have been part of the worldwide surge in the number of seminarians. “Over the past three years,” says Father Darrin Connall, rector of Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga University and director of seminarians for the Diocese of Spokane, “we have increased the number of active priests in our diocese by almost 20 percent. This has permitted the bishop to assign parochial vicars to parishes that haven’t had one in several years…We have also been able to free up priests for prison ministry, full-time hospital ministry, and to place a priest in our diocesan high school as a chaplain and teacher—the first time this has happened in decades.”

To determine which dioceses have been most successful in attracting priestly vocations, CWR has calculated the ratio of Catholics to diocesan seminarians in all 176 Latin Rite dioceses of the United States (excluding the Archdiocese for the Military Services) based on data published in the 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 editions of The Official Catholic Directory. Religious-order seminarians—for example, seminarians of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter in the Diocese of Lincoln—were not included in the calculations. In rare cases in which the number of diocesan seminarians was not reported in an edition of the Directory, individual dioceses have been contacted to obtain the most accurate data possible.

Two previous CWR articles—”Priestly Vocations in America: A Look at the Numbers” (July-August 2005) and “Priestly Vocations in America: An Updated Look” (June 2006) examined the statistics for 2003, 2004, and 2005. Because the success or failure of a diocese to attract vocations can change dramatically in a few years, an update of the rankings is warranted. The Diocese of Shreveport, for example, surged from 176th to 61st in the rankings between 2003 and 2006, while the Diocese of Lubbock declined from 9th to 121st.


The 20 American dioceses with the highest ratio of diocesan seminarians to Catholics in 2006 were: Lincoln, Juneau, Tulsa, Rapid City, Cheyenne, Duluth, Peoria, Denver, Wichita, Lexington, Tyler, Bismarck, Fargo, Nashville, Spokane, Pensacola-Tallahassee, Memphis, Mobile, Yakima, and Sioux City.

Returning to the list of top 10 dioceses is the South Dakota diocese of Rapid City, which ranked first in the nation in 2003. Bishop Blase Cupich says to CWR, “I think there are three things that have contributed to our success, although I have to admit we would surely like even greater numbers. God’s grace: We can never forget that it is the Lord who calls and we have to pray…Strong families: We have the support of parents and we tend to have larger families. [And] all of the priests are involved in recruiting and supporting seminarians. I refer to this as ‘enlightened self-interest’—not only from the perspective of knowing that they will have collaborators for the future, but also from the standpoint that seminarians bolster priests’ morale today with their vibrancy and enthusiasm.”

New additions to the top 10 in 2006 are the Diocese of Peoria, the Archdiocese of Denver, and the Diocese of Lexington ( Kentucky). Father Brian K. Brownsey, Peoria’s vocation director, believes “our success is due much to the culture of vocations, which started with my predecessors and which I am trying to spread. Especially in our high schools and Newman centers we work at putting down the lie of ‘careerism’ and try to instill in our young people the notion that every person has a specific call from God.” In addition, “every high school in the diocese is assigned a full-time priest chaplain, and our college Newman centers are staffed by priests as well. The high schools and Newman centers offer regular times of Eucharistic adoration at which students are encouraged to sit and pray before the Blessed Sacrament to come to know and embrace their vocation. Furthermore, one third of our presbyterate has been ordained for 10 years or less. These young priests give powerful witness to that message of the culture of vocations.” Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky, C.S.C., concurs: his assistant, Sister Trish Clark, says, “The bishop attributes our vocations to the grace of God, a zealous diocese, great priests, eight Catholic Newman centers, priests at all seven of our diocesan Catholic high schools, and prayer.”

Father Jim Crisman, Denver’s director of priestly vocations, believes that the archdiocese’s success in attracting seminarians is largely a result of the prayers and the work of Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. “What Archbishop Chaput has done for the archdiocese is encourage a healthy Catholic environment that supports various and diverse forms of genuine Catholic piety and spirituality…He has highlighted the importance of marriage and family life in the diocese, and spent much capital in support of our Catholic schools. He continually speaks of the importance of living one’s faith in the public sphere. All of this supports vocations and a culture that supports vocations more than any program I offer or talk I give…In addition to the immense impact the archbishop has had on vocations, our own families are creating an environment where vocations to holy orders and consecrated life are supported and even encouraged.”

For his part, Archbishop Chaput traces Denver’s success to World Youth Day 1993 and to the vision of his predecessor, Cardinal James Francis Stafford. Moreover, Archbishop Chaput tells CWR, “I think we have a strong presbyterate that attracts good men. I also believe our two seminaries are among the very best in the country, with a great faculty and sound formation team. And I think the people in archdiocesan leadership here are solidly and unapologetically Catholic. Young men who hear God’s voice in their lives want to be part of that—especially when they see the zeal, maturity, and enthusiasm of the seminarians who are already studying here. I’m also impressed with the number of people in the archdiocese who are praying for vocations to the diaconate, priesthood and religious life. Many of our parishes have perpetual adoration, which brings special graces to the archdiocese.”

Only two of the nation’s 40 highest-ranked dioceses have Catholic populations of over 150,000: the Archdiocese of Denver, with nearly 400,000 Catholics, and the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, with nearly 650,000. Asked why the Archdiocese of Denver has experienced more success than other large dioceses in attracting seminarians, Archbishop Chaput says, “I’m uneasy about comparing good news in Denver to other places that might be struggling. It isn’t always accurate or fair. Our circumstances here are very different from the Church in the Midwest and East, where the Catholic communities are older and more established. Still, we do have the advantage of being new and young as a Church—our theological seminary in less than a decade old—so we don’t have some of the inertia that always comes with age. People gravitate to signs of life and zeal, and that certainly includes men considering the priesthood. We’ve been blessed to benefit from that, but other dioceses face different situations.”

The Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, has experienced a noticeable increase in the seminarians under Bishop Ronald Gainer. He tells CWR, “In our efforts we strive to raise awareness of all vocations: priestly, religious, married life, and single life. I am convinced that if we get everyone listening to how God is calling them to fulfill their baptismal calling, more will recognize that he is calling them to a religious vocation. So, for instance, in the program for our vocations dinners we have a panel of people from various vocations…At a recent vocations dinner at our cathedral we had 120 young people in attendance and a panel of eight people.”

New to the list of top 20 dioceses in 2006 are the Dioceses of Nashville and Memphis and the Archdiocese of Mobile. Nashville Bishop David Choby comments, “I think that young men are looking for something deeper and more lasting to commit their lives to. Here in Nashville we are doing everything that we can to speak in support of the priesthood at every event and occasion.”

Commenting on the Archdiocese of Mobile’s success in attracting seminarians, vocation director Father Alejandro Valladares says, “This is God’s work. He inspires; we receive… [Archbishop Lipscomb] is very accessible to discuss with prospective seminarians a call to the priesthood. This personal touch is vital to the discernment process and continues throughout the formation process.” In addition, Father Valladares attributes the archdiocese’s success to its campus ministry programs: “All but four of our seminarians,” he says, “have had direct contact with campus ministry programs, which have helped them grow in their faith.” He adds, “The people in the archdiocese sincerely pray for vocations. It makes a difference.”


The 20 dioceses with the lowest ratio of diocesan seminarians to Catholics in 2006—starting with the bottom-ranked diocese—were San Diego, Honolulu, Metuchen, Las Vegas, Laredo, Los Angeles, New York, Hartford, El Paso, Rochester, Santa Rosa, San Antonio, Galveston-Houston, Rockville Centre, Boston, Syracuse, Detroit, San Bernardino, Reno, and Monterey.

New York archdiocesan vocation director Father Luke Sweeney comments, “We are swimming upstream when it comes to promoting vocations in such a secular and materialistic culture and society. Commitment, a life of loving sacrifice, and doing things from the perspective of eternity rather than Wall Street cut against the air we breathe. New York is a tough nut to crack, even for such groups as the CFRs [Father Benedict Groeschel’s Franciscan Friars of the Renewal] and the Sisters of Life, who do well nationally and internationally, but not as well in New York City.”

Father Michael Dolan, who was appointed the Archdiocese of Hartford’s new vocation director in August, believes that the three top challenges his archdiocese faces are “money, media, and mom.” He says, “Connecticut is among the highest in per capita income in the nation, which presents both an obstacle and an opportunity for us…Our geographic location places us between two major media markets: Boston and New York. The print and television outlets are incessant in publicizing every negative event, real or perceived, that occurs anywhere in the Church. A steady diet of this discouraging news feed has had its impact on the ordained, never mind the discerning.” Finally, “picturing a son as a priest was easier in a different climate.” Father Dolan sees grounds for hope in “the John Paul II generation, with their great devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist.”

Sister Kathy Bryant, R.S.C., the vocation director and director of seminarians for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, correlates the archdiocese’s relatively low number of seminarians to its standards for accepting them. “Don’t forget,” she says to CWR, “that there are very different criteria in each diocese. Some take seminarians who have not lived even one year in their diocese. Some dioceses are importing men from Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, etc. That is not our policy. Also, we have a screening policy based on the PPF [the US bishops’ Program for Priestly Formation], national audit, etc., and from listening to seminarians from other dioceses, their application process was quite minimal.”

Officials of some of the nation’s most vocation-rich dioceses, however, emphasize the selectivity of their admissions process and the local origins of their vocations. “I think it is important to have high quality seminarians,” says Spokane’s Father Connall. “Healthy guys striving for holiness attract other quality candidates—it is really that simple. Being selective might mean fewer numbers in a particular year, but it is an important investment into the overall health and success of a vocation program.” All of Mobile’s seminarians, says Father Valladares, “are American born, and all but one or two” are from Alabama.

Men who became shepherds of three of these dioceses in 2005—Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva, San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez, and Reno Bishop Randolph Calvo—discussed with CWR the actions they have been taking to increase the number of seminarians. Bishop Silva says, “Since 2006, we have gone from one seminarian to three current seminarians. In addition, I recently ordained to the priesthood three men who came to the diocese from an institute of apostolic life. Our challenge is to create a culture in which priests, religious, parents, catechists, and parishioners promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life. This has been one of my highest priorities since I became bishop of Honolulu.” Bishop Silva appointed a new full-time director of vocations in July.

San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez, who served as Auxiliary Bishop of Denver from 2001 to 2005, says that “after my experience in Denver, I think that the involvement of the bishop makes a difference. I live on the grounds of Assumption Seminary and I celebrate Mass with [the seminarians] at least once a month. I’m as available to them as is possible, together with the formation faculty of the seminary. Of course, I pray for them, and I ask people everywhere in the archdiocese to pray for vocations. Every Sunday at the cathedral after Mass, we sing the Salve Regina, praying for vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life…I think that confidence in the formation programs and better information about what’s happening in the seminaries makes a big difference. When the seminarians feel that their vocation is respected and supported and the formation and theological program are solid, they are more likely to respond to the call and stay in formation. In turn, they are your best advertisement to other prospective seminarians.”

The Diocese of Reno joined the ranks of the nation’s most vocation-poor dioceses largely because of a 37 percent surge in overall Catholic population between 2003 and 2006. Bishop Randolph Calvo says, “Our diocese is making consistent efforts to raise the consciousness of vocations, especially to priesthood and religious life.” Like Archbishop Gomez, he highlights the importance of personal contact: “I have on a quarterly basis invited young people interested in exploring a possible vocation to come to my house and have dinner with me as a way of making contact with them.”


Between 2003 and 2006, the dozen dioceses whose rankings fell the most steeply were Lubbock, Reno, Laredo, Beaumont, Anchorage, Evansville, Salt Lake City, Baker, St. Augustine, Bridgeport, Belleville, and Syracuse.

In some cases, a greater reluctance to accept foreign seminarians is part of the reason for the decline. In 2003, nearly half of Reno’s seminarians “came from Mexico and Colombia to study for the diocese,” according to Bishop Calvo. While the number of seminarians declined between 2003 and 2006, the bishop is pleased that a higher percentage are local vocations, which “is significant, given the history of vocations in the state of Nevada. Of the 49 active and retired priests currently in the diocese, only 11 are men who were living in the diocese when they responded to the call to become a priest.”

Speaking to CWR on condition of anonymity, the bishop of one of the 20 dioceses whose rankings declined most steeply attributes his diocese’s decline to increased vigilance over the doctrinal fidelity and moral suitability of seminarians.

In Bridgeport, which remains one of the Northeast’s higher-ranked dioceses, vocations director Father Peter J. Lynch, like his colleagues in New York and Hartford, believes that the culture’s secularism and materialism are taking a toll. In addition, many “don’t know their faith well enough,” and “a trend I am seeing is that ‘second career’ men have a hard time committing, even if it’s just to a focused discernment program. But the other side of the trend is that there are younger men, even right out of high school, who are entering.”

No diocese suffered a steeper plunge in the ratio of Catholics to seminarians between 2003 and 2006 than did the Texas diocese of Lubbock. Four diocesan officials did not respond to invitations to offer comments for the article; two prominent local laity, however, did.

Gary McDonald, past president of the Serra Club of Lubbock, says, “It is my understanding that our bishop, Placido Rodriguez, recruited seminarians from Mexico to study in the US to become priests in the Lubbock diocese. Unfortunately, although quite a few seminarians came here to study, many of them did not complete their studies in the US. The reasons varied from difficulties with learning the language to problems adapting to the different culture. Because of the high dropout rate, our bishop is no longer recruiting seminarians from Mexico.”

Dr. Kellie Flood-Shaffer, residency program director in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, is associate department chairperson, a board member, and an officer of the Texas Perinatal Association, and a member of the Catholic Medical Association. She says, “Clearly, the sexual abuse of children scandal has caused a drop in vocations, here as elsewhere. But unique to Lubbock, in my opinion, are these things: I do not hear regular encouragement from the pulpit for the faithful to pray for vocations, I am not aware that there is any regular discussion with our young sons and daughters to consider a religious vocation (by either the priests, nuns, or parents in our community), and I have not seen a single novice or seminarian visit any of the parishes to talk to the youth or work in the parish since I moved to Lubbock in 2001…I believe that in order for the Lubbock diocese to increase vocations, the leadership of the diocese must be more vocal and visible to the youth of the diocese. There is only one Catholic school here in Lubbock, which all of my children have attended—but again, they got little to no encouragement to consider religious life.”

On the other hand, the dozen dioceses whose rankings rose the most steeply between 2003 and 2006 were Juneau, Shreveport, Madison, Paterson, Pueblo, Saginaw, Memphis, Crookston, Colorado Springs, Covington, St. Paul-Minneapolis, Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Toledo. In several cases, the increase in the number of seminarians coincided with the arrival of a new bishop: Bishop Robert Morlino in Madison, Bishop Arthur Serratelli in Paterson, Bishop Robert Carlson in Saginaw, Bishop Michael Sheridan in Colorado Springs, Bishop Roger Foys in Covington, Bishop Robert Finn in Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Bishop Leonard Blair in Toledo.

Discussing the various reasons for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s increased success, Keith Jiron, director of the office of vocations, says that Bishop Finn “at the outset of his episcopacy made vocations a super-priority.” Sister Connie Boulch, director of the diocese’s office of consecrated life, gives credit to “the bishop’s constant preaching on the need for vocations at every event and his upfront, face-to-face challenges to young people concerning priesthood and consecrated life. The bishop has entrusted our diocese and its needs of all kinds, but especially the need for good holy priests, to Mary, the patroness of our diocese. He also keeps in contact with the seminarians, is present to them, and enjoys being with them at prayer and socially. Being strongly up-front about fidelity to Church teachings even when they are not popular has clarified what the Church is and who her priests need to be.”

Similarly, Msgr. James Bartylla, vocations director for the Diocese of Madison, describes Bishop Morlino as “an orthodox bishop” who “is particularly adept at fostering and promoting vocations and supporting our seminarians. Our seminarians are thrilled that he will vocally stand up for the natural law and Catholic doctrine, even when it isn’t easy.”

Msgr. Bartylla calls Eucharistic adoration the “number one reason” for the increase.

Echoing the comments of other bishops and vocation directors, Paterson’s Bishop Serratelli tells CWR, “God has been good to us. In the last three years, we have earnestly begged him for an increase of vocations. We instituted a pastoral initiative in all the parishes on all vocations, with a special emphasis on priesthood and the consecrated life…We have encouraged prayer by everyone, especially prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Where Jesus is loved and adored in the Eucharist, vocations follow.”

Paterson ‘s vocations director, Father Tom Fallone, adds: “It seems that a lot of the men entering seminary formation are operating out of a great love of Jesus Christ. And in any vocation, that has to be the main motivation…For a long time it seemed that the idea of priesthood became diluted, amalgamated with other forms of ministry. But in recent times, it seems to be a good thing that guys are being invited to consider the priesthood as a totally unique way of loving God and man: a way in persona Christi…The numbers of seminarians increase because men will give their lives for an exclamation point but not a question mark.”

Jeff Ziegler writes from North Carolina.


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.