Some U.S. seminaries report surge in enrollments even as nationwide numbers remain flat

Credit: Cathopic / Moisés Becerra

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 12, 2023 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Seminarian enrollment in the United States has been on a decadeslong decline as fewer young men seek out the priesthood and the number of active priests in the U.S. continues to dwindle. But some dioceses are reporting a notable surge in enrollment, signaling a potential turnaround in some regions.

Annual data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, released in June of this year, showed “a continuation of relatively slow long-term decline” in priestly vocations at the pre-theology and theology levels, falling from over 6,400 men in 1970 to 2,759 in the most recent academic year.

Similar sharp drops have been observed in both college- and high school-level seminarian enrollment over the same time period. In recent years the decline in priests and seminarians has been observed globally as well.

Yet some seminary and diocesan officials told CNA that the number of seminarians they have in training for the priesthood has increased in recent years.

Father Joe Taphorn, the rector of Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity in Minneapolis, said the school’s current class of seminarians is the largest of his nearly five-year tenure there.

“That first fall we had 77 seminarians,” Taphorn told CNA. “We’ll probably be at just over 100 this fall. And that’s basically almost full. We’re kind of nearing capacity.”

The school’s growth has been ongoing. In 2021, the seminary experienced its largest one-year increase in enrollment since 1975, going from 70 seminarians to 90 seminarians. In the spring of this year, 16 seminarians from the school were ordained transitional deacons.

“We’re never going to be the largest seminary, just because of our facilities,” he said. “But if we do formation well, and prepare our men well, and cast a positive vision — that’s attractive to young men. There continues to be interest and vocational visits from young men who want to learn more.”

Taphorn said the Church needs to be proactive in how it encourages young men to seek out the priesthood.

“We need a mindset not of retreat but of advancing,” he said. “I think young people are looking for something that is more than the world offers. I think there’s aspirations for greatness. That’s really found ultimately in holiness and in sacrificial love.”

The decline in vocations around the U.S. has for years impelled dioceses and bishops to take sometimes-drastic measures to address priestly shortages. A major initiative to merge parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, for example, is being driven in part by a looming priest shortage on the horizon as more priests retire and not enough are being ordained to replace them.

The Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, is also in the process of closing over a dozen parishes in part due to what Bishop Earl K. Fernandes called an “aging clergy.”

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs in more than just Minnesota. One Voice, the official magazine of the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, reported last month that “for the first time in diocesan history, this fall, there will be 19 men in studies and formation at three different [Birmingham] seminaries.”

Father Wyman Vintson, the director of diocesan vocations there, said Birmingham has had “the same shortage of priests that everybody throughout the country has had” in recent years.

However, the surge in seminarians, he said, is “an indication of a growth in the Church” in the region.

“It helps to generate some optimism among the clergy as well as the laity,” he said. “It’s a very encouraging thing to have the most seminarians you’ve had in 54 years.”

Vintson said the diocese sends its seminarians to several regional seminaries, including Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. He said it looks like the elevated number of seminarians enjoyed by the diocese may remain high in the near future.

“We have four in application at the moment. It’s looking very positive,” he said. “We just keep trying to focus on being open to the call that Jesus is making to these men as they approach us.”

Vintson said the vocations office does much of its outreach through campus ministry programs. He said young men who show an interest in the priesthood are often permitted to spend a weekend at one of the diocesan seminaries in order to see if they want to pursue the vocation further.

“We’re very proud of our seminarians,” he said, “and we’re thankful to the people of the diocese who are helping to send them to seminary and nurture and affirm them and help them to grow.”

Sandy Cunningham, the marketing director at Saint Joseph Abbey and Seminary College in Saint Benedict, Louisiana, said her school’s enrollment numbers are “pretty much unchanged” over recent years, with “about 100 [students] plus or minus.”

She said the school estimates that “only 25% of our students become priests” on a regular basis.

Yet Cunningham did say that in a recent batch of 30 graduates “only two reported they were not continuing on toward the priesthood.” Those graduates were “either receiving a bachelor’s degree or finishing a two-year theology program for students who already had a bachelor’s degree,” she said. (Those high numbers were “not the norm,” she pointed out.)

What’s driving local surges?

A vital question for the Church, of course, is: What’s driving localized spikes in seminarian enrollment? And can it be replicated elsewhere?

Father Carter Griffin, the rector of Saint John Paul II Seminary in Washington, D.C., said the strong numbers in some dioceses and seminaries are likely the result of years of long work on the part of local Church leaders.

“The most successful promoters of the priesthood are joyful, faithful priests in the parishes,” he told CNA.

“Consistently strong numbers [not just a banner year] are the cumulative effect of many years of careful selection and formation of priests,” he said. “One has to play the long game, not just get big numbers in the seminary, so that there are healthy priests in parishes.”

“Getting vocations from zero to 60 takes 20 years, not two years,” he added. “It’s building a genuine culture of vocations, not a slick vocations program.”

Griffin suggested the overall decline is likely due to a number of factors, including “demoralization in the priesthood” as well as “poor doctrinal formation and a loss of focus and fortitude in the face of aggressive secularization.”

Deacon Steve Kramer, the director of homiletics and an associate professor of pastoral studies at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology just outside of Milwaukee, said the school has seen several distinct increases in enrollment in recent years. He speculated that recent world events may be driving localized spikes in enrollment.

“I think that during COVID, a lot of people had some time to think,” he said. “And during that time, maybe this little germ of an idea they had sitting in their head, perhaps the Spirit was able to talk to them. Because the last couple of years have been pretty good for us vocationally.”

Father Eric Garris, the vocations director for the Diocese of Cleveland, agreed that the COVID crisis is also likely giving a boost to some seminary numbers.

“For many seminarians, COVID was a game-changer,” he told CNA. “Many of them sat alone in a room with their thoughts and decided: ‘I want to live for something.’”

“COVID was a catalyst for a lot of young men,” he said. “It wasn’t just the sense of their mortality looming. I think it gave them the opportunity to reevaluate their lives and ask, ‘What am I living for, why am I living?’”

In contrast to the overall continuing decline in seminary numbers, Garris said Cleveland’s numbers have been “pretty stable” over roughly the last 15 years. As with St. Louis, Garris said Cleveland has at times had to address priest shortages by closing or merging parishes.

“It’s taken some time,” he said, “and it’s worked well. A lot of our vibrant parishes are the ones that have experienced closures or mergers. Our priests are becoming pastors earlier than normal.”

Reflecting on how to bring more men into the priesthood, Father Taphorn pointed to then-Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in 2008 on the decline of vocations in the U.S.

Benedict at the time was engaged in an apostolic visit to the United States, his only time visiting the country. “To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call,” Benedict said. “… Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”

Taphorn said inculcating young men with a “life of prayer” will help continue to drive up vocational numbers.

“By the time we receive them, there’s already been a discernment,” he said. “They’re sort of in the final part of their vocation. Vocations are borne of prayer. It’s a very intimate call from God.”

“It’s not so much advertising, or the latest posters,” he continued. “That’s all kind of nice. But I really think it’s much more intimate than that. God is calling. It’s not on him. It’s on us. So the question is, are we listening?”

Garris, meanwhile, said the times have changed but that there are nevertheless encouraging signs for the priesthood and the Church.

“There’s a lot of, ‘We’re in a crisis, we’re in a shortage,’” he said. “[But] we have people stepping up and saying, ‘I will follow.’”

“We’re not where we were in the ’60s,” he said. “But we don’t need to be. For a lot of young people, they see the things the world is offering and they say, ‘I want to choose something better.’”

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  1. A hopeful surge that relatively speaking amounts to a trickle. Young men are motivated by life or death challenge. The risk of adversity, even unto the shedding of blood. Nothing is more challenging and important than the eternal truths of our faith, of heaven and perdition. While intellectual pursuits have their validity the present decline of priests, exodus of laity requires a radical turn toward the evangelization of the early Apostolic Church.
    Among our models the Apostle Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Augustine. Bishops who preach to their clergy and to laity. Priests who are well educated and encouraged to preach those truths that are rarely if ever addressed today. What we lack is spiritual fire.
    Paradoxically, when clergy do arise from the ranks who faithfully preach to the faithful they’re silenced, even sanctioned. Nevertheless, we can’t succumb to fear, inertia, and complaints.
    Bishops must take the lead and encourage their presbyters, deacons regardless of adverse reaction. Laity I’m confident would be encouraged, likely more proactive. A wave of action would be difficult to stem. Faithful witness would certainly be empowered by Our Lord.

  2. Mt St Mary,Emmitsburg,md…the cradle of Bishops, is jammed! Give them good holy experiences and the harvest will be abundant!

  3. We read” “Griffin suggested the overall decline [in vocations] is likely due to a number of factors, including ‘demoralization in the priesthood’ as well as “poor doctrinal formation and a loss of focus and fortitude in the face of aggressive secularization’.”

    Yes, yes, and yes! Butt, hey, what about the “endless journey” of holding focus groups worldwide—formerly “synods of bishops”—and with bishops themselves having been demoralized (!) “primarily as facilitators” for flip chart block parties? And, even with the Tennis-Court-Oath “non-synod” thingy in Germania still enjoying face time at the microphone?

    “Aggregating, compiling and synthesizing”! The “listening” thingy on steroids.

    So, waiting here for the real Successors of the Apostles—from all over the world—to leaven truly and together the 2023/24 Synods. And, there to separate the wheat (and, yes, there is wheat in the mix) from the chaff, and at least from the vocal colons!

    And, to simply notice that a synodal Church with its Christocentric foundation mixed with clay cannot stand, let alone “walk together” in real communion, participation, and mission.

  4. The growth of the traditional wing of the Church held out for a future that promised so much, until the myopic views of TC came about in 2021. Like wise the growth during the pontificates of JP II and Benedict were another reason for hope. Since then that hope has faded. The Irish bishops were hopeful of Francis visit when the WMF was in progress came to nothing! It had been noted that the influence of Francis has been negligible when current seminarians are asked. One could even point to a toxicity!

  5. I not certain that looking at seminaries themselves is the best indicator of the state of the Catholic Church in America. After all, seminaries are training grounds for future priests from a variety of dioceses. Bishops choose to send their men to certain seminaries based on their reputations and reputations can fluctuate over time. Asks any priest to name the three premier seminaries in the USA and they can. It might mean the difference between attending Harvard and some State college somewhere.

    The telling statistic for me has always been the ratio of priests in seminary to priests already ordained. Large numbers of faithful, traditional and sacricifially-living priests engender the same. There is however also the confounding statistic of the number of priests in training in religious orders who came from the ranks of certain dioceses. These too must be factored into where the number of new priests are coming from and how certain do with regard to fostering vocations.

    The other variable worth looking at is the number of priests per regularly practicing, weekly-churchgoing Catholics. That number has drastically fallen off in the past 60 years due to the fact that Catholics have been evangelized into various forms of secular atheistic religion by cultural forces.

  6. “Success is fidelity.” (St. Teresa of Kolkata). We die for lack of Food when we bite the Hand that feeds us. See the success of FOCUS and St. Mary’ s at TAMU. Or look at the Catholic Church in Africa. To be sure they have problems, yet it is common to find them:

    – Rigorously teaching Sacred Scripture.
    – Lovingly looking backwards to Sacred Tradition.
    – Boldly preaching the full Gospel.
    – Openly praying and giving witness.
    – Joyously celebrating the Sacraments
    – Faithfully inviting all to repentance for sin.
    – Courageously clinging to the Cross of Christ.

    Perhaps after discernment, the enlightened and merciful Papal guests at the upcoming Synod of People will consider listening to, accompanying and integrating something truly progressive – the African pastoral practices that actually make progress because they are alive and growing.

  7. I wonder if there is any evidence yet in the Avila Institute’s High Calling program’s discernment process that points to a possible increase in the number of seminarians especially in the Birmingham area?

  8. Gay men and pedophiles for decades have known that this is a prime area for them to join up. The church is desperate for priests, so they can practice their behaviors under the guise of the church as they and everyone else has observed in the last few years. As long as they hide it and not get caught initially, it’s the perfect breeding ground for their sin. They know they have great PR writers that will help them out. Sigh…..Lord, open the eyes of the church leaders and help them see who they’ve been working for.

    • You have a point–bad environment has lead many to leave the seminary as well…..good holy men that got the calling, but do to what they saw or experience they could not condone it… then too, were forced out cause no one would back them up….. so sad.

      • I know a man – now an ordained Catholic priest – who had initially discerned a vocation with the Jesuits. He left after having been “hit upon” by one too many fellow Jesuit seminarians.

    • Brain,
      How do you know where gay men and pedophiles go to ‘join’ up? Any evidence to support your claims? How do you know the church is “desperate for priests”? How do you know the “guise of the church” is “the perfect breeding ground for their sin.” (How do you define ‘perfect breeding ground’? You DO KNOW THAT HOMOSEXUAL SEX IS STERILE SEX, RIGHT? No breeding (in the common sense of the word) occurs. How do you know that “They [gay men and pedophiles] know that they have great PR writers? Waiting for the crickets to start chirping….

      If for one moment I believed that your hard heart and deficient reason were open to healing, I would pray that you be struck deaf and dumb when you next tried to spew such inane RASH JUDGMENT. This sin is yesterday’s news and stultifyingly boring when applied to this topic–very unoriginal. Can you not do better? Then perhaps Jesus would open your mouth and ears with His saliva in order to cure you.

    • Well Brian wouldn’t it make sense for some SSA men to look at all male seminaries for the wrong reasons or for deviants attracted to children to seek vocations working in schools or coaching Little League?
      The great majority of people follow a vocation for the right reasons but it’s a fallen world. Predators go where they think they can find prey.

  9. In 2022-23 the Lincoln diocese of southern Nebraska had 28 seminarians enrolled. By the grace of God in answer to prayer, our diocese consistently nurtures a good number of religious vocations-women, as well. In addition to prayer, other likely contributing factors are proudly Catholic schools in which spiritual formation and academic excellence is priority, a welcoming, vibrant and active Newman Center on the University of Nebraska city campus and, of course, strong Catholic families. Without good and holy priests, the Catholic church ceases exist!

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