Faithful and Counter-Cultural: What Attracts Young Men to the Priesthood Today

Anne Hendershott and Christopher White explain how orthodoxy is winning out in their new book, Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church.

Anne Hendershott, professor of sociology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and Christopher White, director of education and programs at the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, are two longtime contributors to Catholic World Report who have collaborated on a new book, Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops Is Revitalizing the Catholic Church (Encounter Books, 2013). CWR caught up with them recently to discuss their new book and its findings. 

CWR: Are you saying that there never really was an ordination crisis in the Catholic Church, that it was just progressive parishes that experienced low numbers, and the leadership in those parishes seized on that in order to try to promote unorthodox teachings?

Anne Hendershott: There has been and there still is a shortage of priests in some dioceses.  But I agree with Bishop Elden Curtiss that it has never been a “crisis.” We acknowledge that the total numbers of priests has indeed declined since Vatican II.  In 1965, there was one priest to every 780 Catholics.  By 1980, there was one priest to every 900 Catholics.  Today there is one priest to every 2,000 Catholics, but these numbers do not tell the whole story.  In some dioceses there are more than enough priests – a surplus of priests!  While in other dioceses, there is indeed a shortage.  Our book tries to help us understand why that is happening.

Christopher White: It’s true that ordination rates to the priesthood were in sharp decline in the years following Vatican II. In dioceses around the country, and throughout the world for that matter, a generation of Catholics were poorly catechized and confused as to what the Church taught and why. This problem was only compounded by the sexual abuse crisis, where there were real lapses in holiness, which, of course, reflected poorly on the institution of the priesthood. Yet many of the bishops appointed by Popes John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have not only been wonderfully orthodox, but have also been tremendously instrumental in reengaging young men and stirring them to consider the priesthood. This, we believe, has led to the surge of vocations over the past 10 years.

CWR: According to your research, why do progressive parishes fail to attract, grow, and nurture vocations?

Hendershott: In their research, sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke found that the more a religious organization compromises with society and the world, blurring its identity and modifying its teachings and ethics, the more it will decline.  Look at the Episcopal Church—it has been losing members for decades now as progressives have taken over the leadership there, and they really do not know what they stand for anymore.  Who would want to become a priest in the Episcopal Church today?  Religious organizations are stronger to the degree that they impose significant costs in terms of sacrifice and even stigma upon their members.  To be counter-cultural is an attraction to holy men because as the culture becomes more degraded, it becomes ever more important to fight against that culture.  Stark and Finke suggest that it may be better to make it even harder to enter the priesthood—like the Marines, who deny admission to many in their quest for “just a few good” men.

White: The Church is at her best when she offers an uncompromising defense of her timeless teachings. Century after century we continue to learn the lesson that orthodoxy always wins out. Young men are being attracted to the priesthood because they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and this only happens in the dioceses and parishes where the Church is unambiguous about what it teaches and why.

CWR: Can you tell us about the study of poor ordination rates in parishes that have turned their administration primarily over to lay people, rather than to parish priests?

Hendershott: Good and holy priests provide wonderful role models for young men who might someday consider joining the priesthood.  Conversely, in some parishes—run by progressive pastoral administrators—young men are less likely to answer the call to a priesthood that has been so diminished that the priest is a visiting “sacramental minister” who arrives in time to consecrate the Eucharist and play a subservient role to the female “pastoral administrator.”  In those parishes, the decline in priestly vocations will continue.  Thankfully, there is a growing awareness of this problem and there seems to be a reduction in the numbers of these pastoral administrators. I hope that continues.

White: The role of the laity is certainly important and we don’t want to minimize their contribution to the renewal of the Church. But we’ve also noticed that in dioceses where there is ambiguity about the role of the priest, young men are less likely to respond to the call of the priesthood. In a chapter in our book titled “Blurring the Boundaries,” one of the examples we point to is Rochester, New York. Ordination rates there have been quite low, not to mention the number of closed Catholic parishes and schools. We believe one of the primary reasons for this was a lack of focus on priests and, instead, a focus on parish administrators.

CWR: Do you have any research on where these orthodox priests and religious are coming from? (Big families? Families who homeschool? Classical Catholic schools?)

Hendershott: As a member of the faculty at Franciscan University I have enjoyed meeting young men and young women undergraduates who are already beginning to answer the call to religious life.    Orthodox colleges like Franciscan, Ave Maria, and Christendom are all producing vocations.  But I am of course biased toward Franciscan’s exceptional program.  At any given time, there are 50 to 60 young men who are discerning God’s will at Franciscan University.  The Blessed Junipero Serra Fund allows contributors to invest in the future of the priesthood through ongoing spiritual and financial support for Franciscan Priestly Discernment Program students. This makes a tremendous difference.  It is something that should be available to young men and young women at all Catholic colleges and universities.  There was a time when Catholic higher education saw it as their role to nurture priestly vocations.  Now, most Catholic colleges and universities seem to do what they can to inhibit them.

White: The best data on this really comes from the Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown. Their 2013 survey on last year’s new priests reveal that 20 percent of them come from families with over five siblings, and very often they’re the oldest. In addition, these priests have strong backgrounds in the liberal arts, philosophy, and theology and are very likely to have attended a Catholic college or high school. We’ve also seen evidence that World Youth Day serves as an important impetus for young men considering the priesthood or young women considering religious life.

CWR: Can you give an example of an orthodox bishop who came into a struggling diocese and made a difference?

Hendershott: There are many transformational bishops throughout the country.  Some have had more dramatic results than others— Boston’s Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley recently told the National Catholic Register that when he arrived in 2003 to lead that archdiocese, he was advised to close the seminary. Now there are 70 men in Boston studying to be priests, and the seminary has had to turn away candidates for lack of space. Cardinal O’Malley in Boston has revitalized that diocese—so much so that he has had to create more space to accommodate all of the young men who have answered the call.

White: One of my favorite examples is that of Archbishop Robert Carlson (now of St. Louis). Previously, however, he was bishop of Saginaw, Michigan. Shortly after being appointed bishop, one of his first moves was to name himself vocations director as well. This signaled to the entire diocese that vocations were a priority to him and that he was committed to recruiting new priests. He didn’t do this by lobbying to change Church teachings or relax the requirements for priests. Instead, he preached the Gospel, defended the Church boldly and truthfully, and made sure his flock was also committed to doing the same.

CWR: Sociological studies show that religious organizations are successful to the extent that they distance themselves from, rather than blend with, the rest of society. In what ways have successful dioceses “distanced” themselves from the world?

Hendershott:  Same Call, Different Men, a new book by Mary Gautier, Paul Perl, and Stephen Fichter, of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown, helps to support our contention that priests today are more orthodox and happier than priests of the past. Their research found that not only are today’s priests satisfied with their lives and ministries but priestly satisfaction with their vocation has been increasing over time, even in the midst of the decline in the total number of priests and the sexual abuse scandal.  Today’s young priests are more satisfied than young priests were in years past.  In 1985, only 44 percent of full-time associate pastors said they would “definitely not leave” the priesthood.  By 2009, this proportion had risen to 93 percent of young priests who said that they would “definitely not” leave the priesthood.  Today’s millennial priests find affirmation for their beliefs from the Church’s hierarchy and this translates into a feeling of greater support from Church leadership.  In the Gautier study, 73 percent of priests under 40 reported receiving strong support from the Vatican.  In 1993, this was the case for just 33 percent of young priests.  Likewise, these young priests are also more likely to report strong support from their own bishops—79 percent of those under 40 in 2009, compared to 52 percent of those under 40 in 1993.

On page 186 of our book, we suggest that the priests who are most satisfied with their vocation view the priesthood from a “cultic” model—one that tends to place more emphasis on maintaining a distinctive priestly identity—concerned with maintaining the view of the priest as a man set apart.  We argue that it is important to view the priest as a man set apart because he has indeed been set apart through the laying on of hands at ordination in his distinctive ministry as a representative Jesus Christ here on earth.

White: As you mention, it’s a sociological fact that the more a religious organization compromises with society and the world, blurring its identity and modifying its teachings and ethics, the more it will decline. Successful dioceses are led by bishops who are unafraid to be countercultural through their defense of the dignity of all human life, their support of traditional marriage, their efforts to protect and promote religious liberty, their willingness to live faithful and celibate lives. The goal for priests as they lead their dioceses isn’t to alienate or fully remove themselves from the world, but instead, to be willing to be a sign of contradiction to the world around them. That, I believe, is an even more challenging task.  

CWR: If this trend continues, what do you predict the Church will look like in 25 years?

Hendershott: When I look at the improvements in catechesis throughout the country I am very encouraged.  After four decades in the darkness of poor catechesis, we are now realizing the importance of orthodoxy in our teaching of the faith.  And the orthodox Catholic colleges and universities are training students to teach the truth of the fullness of the faith to this next generation.  For example, the Catechetics Program at Franciscan University is the largest in the country, and probably one of the finest in the world. Franciscan graduates are prepared to “cast out into the deep and bring the light of Christ to a darkening world.” Faculty members who teach in the Catechetics program at Franciscan are guided by a spirit of “dynamic orthodoxy.” They teach the unchanging truths of the faith.  Recently they implemented an online master’s degree program in catechetics which will reach even more students. Graduates of the undergraduate and the graduate programs will be trained to bring that orthodoxy to parishes throughout the country.  They will understand their place in the New Evangelization and will inspire and nurture vocations.  So, yes, I have reason to be optimistic.

White: We’re optimistic that this trend will continue and we have good evidence on our side. The uptick of vocation rates to the priesthood is on track to continue to improve and the average age of men ordained to the priesthood is getting younger. This is happening at the same time that a number of Church ministries are also flourishing, such as the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, Fr. Robert Barron’s Word on Fire program, orthodox Catholic colleges and universities such as Franciscan University and Ave Maria, and countless other examples. A Church that continues down this road will find both its pews and altars full and will be attractive to the world around it! 

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About Leslie Fain 21 Articles
Leslie Fain is a freelance writer who lives in Louisiana with her husband and three sons. You can follow her on Twitter here.