by Sam Alzheimer
For every 100 priests who die or retire, only 30 men are being ordained. That‚Äôs the recent finding from CARA, an organization which studies demographic trends in the U.S. Catholic Church. The Diocese of Shreveport is particularly impacted by a priesthood shortage: only three diocesan priests are under age 50, and we have only had one ordination in the last 11 years.
Nonetheless, Vocations Director, Fr. Matthew Long, is optimistic. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm filled with hope right now!‚ÄĚ he said enthusiastically.¬† ‚ÄúOur number of seminarians is going to increase this year, and the average age is going to go down.‚ÄĚ
At 37, Fr. Long is the youngest priest in the diocese, and is nearing the end of his first year as Vocations Director. He recently attended a conference with other vocations directors in the region to discuss the challenges of their unique work.
‚ÄúMy greatest would-be allies in vocations ministry are priests and parents,‚ÄĚ he said.¬† He cited the USCCB‚Äôs just-released survey of men being ordained this summer, in which 67% say parish priests were their biggest influence.
‚ÄúThe problem is that other studies show that only 30% of parish priests are actively inviting guys to consider priesthood,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI think we priests need to better express the joy and fulfillment that we experience from our own vocation. Young men are inspired when they see the priesthood well-lived.‚ÄĚ
But while priests can impact young men, parents are often more influential. Fr. Long says that in his work with young men who are considering priesthood ‚Äď especially men of high school age ‚Äď parents shape critical decisions.
‚ÄúParents want their children to be successful in life, and I understand that,‚ÄĚ said Fr. Long. ‚ÄúMy parents were the same way, but the problem is the definition of success. Are parents more focused on academic and athletic success, which is fleeting, than on their son‚Äôs spiritual health, his eternal soul? I tell parents that there are no plans they can make for their child that are better than God‚Äôs plans.‚ÄĚ
Sometimes, even good Catholic parents steer their sons away from seminary. ‚ÄúI often hear parents say they want their son to experience ‚Äėreal life‚Äô first, or have a ‚Äėnormal college experience.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
The reality is that most people don‚Äôt understand what seminary is like. It‚Äôs not a monastery where men walk around dark halls in strict silence. Rather, visitors to modern American seminaries are impressed by the joyful camaraderie of seminarians. It‚Äôs a college environment with study, sports and nights on the town ‚Äď but balanced with prayer, spiritual direction and serious discernment of whether a man is being called to be a priest.
‚ÄúGoing to seminary is not a commitment to become a priest,‚ÄĚ emphasized Fr. Long.¬† In fact, because of the years-long process, it‚Äôs far less likely that a man will mistakenly advance toward ordination than for a young man to jump into an ill-advised marriage.
‚ÄúGuys who go to seminary and then discern out are better for it,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre grateful for the experience, for the formation and knowledge, which often makes them better Catholic husbands and fathers. Many former seminarians point to seminary as the most valuable experience in their lives.‚ÄĚ
A major consideration for most seminarians is whether they are being called to celibacy. In the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, seminary personnel are highly aware that any man who is ordained must be psycho-sexually healthy. Thus training in the virtue of chastity is a high priority, and seminarians take it seriously.
Celibacy alone, though, is not the determining factor about whether a man is called to priesthood. As Fr. Long puts it, rather bluntly: ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt make decisions about eternity based on whether or not you get to have sex.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúFor me, celibacy is very life-giving,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúEvery time I come in contact with a child I have baptized, I am affirmed in my celibacy. The same is true when I see couples whose marriages I witnessed. The priest transmits life through witnessing marriage, through baptism‚ÄĒall of the same things that a parent transmits on the natural level, the priest transmits on a spiritual level.¬† That‚Äôs the deepest reason for celibacy‚ÄĒto be unattached to any particular person in order to be available to minister to the spiritual needs of all people.‚ÄĚ
Nonetheless, celibacy is a real sacrifice, says Fr. Long.¬† ‚ÄúPriests, on some level, do mourn the absence of a wife and family. I think my parents looked forward to holding my children. But you know, when they see my happiness, it really does make up for it.¬† Interestingly, now that I‚Äôm a priest, I actually get to spend more quality time with my parents than I would otherwise.‚ÄĚ
Looking towards the challenges of his job, Fr. Long says that his experience working with young people gives him hope. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm seeing a new influx of young men asking what God wants them to do with their lives, and I‚Äôm really impressed by the quality of men we have in seminary.¬† I sense we‚Äôre on the cusp of something great.¬† The most glorious days of the diocese are ahead of us!‚ÄĚ
Stats on Newest Priests
Earlier this year, 366 men scheduled to be¬† ordained priests this summer were surveyed.
Some of the findings include:
‚ÄĘ Average age of the class of 2013 is 35.5.
‚ÄĘ 92% are cradle Catholics.
‚ÄĘ Two thirds are Caucasian.
‚ÄĘ One third were born outside the U.S.
‚ÄĘ 62% report full-time work experience before entering seminary.
‚ÄĘ On average, ordinands were 17 when they first thought about priesthood.
‚ÄĘ Half said they were discouraged by at least one person from entering seminary.
‚ÄĘ About 43 percent had attended Catholic grade school, high school, or college.
‚ÄĘ One-quarter carry educational debt, with the average being $15,000.
‚ÄĘ 67% of ordinands said a parish priest encouraged them to become a priest.
‚ÄĘ Only 28% reported that their fathers encouraged them to become a priest, and 30% reported that their dad discouraged them.
‚ÄĘ Only 34% reported that their mothers encouraged them to become a priest, and 28% reported that their mom discouraged them.
‚ÄĘ 47% had participated in a parish youth group.
‚ÄĘ 67% had been altar servers.
‚ÄĘ 62% reported spending regular time in Eucharistic Adoration before entering seminary.
‚ÄĘ 68% regularly prayed the rosary before entering seminary.