Our current pastor shortage has been overflowing into parishes for several decades. As of last year, some 3,500 parishes were either closed or no longer staffed by pastors; within a decade that number could reach a total of 4,700. Further, bishops across the nation have been employing extern priests — not as many as people might think; still there were 3,700 ordained priests from other countries in ministry in our parishes.
What follows is my treatment of four myths regarding young Catholic adults.
1. Collapse in traditional vocations was a repudiation of priesthood.
Two events in the early 1960s encouraged young Catholics to look outward: the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president of the United States and Vatican Council II called by Blessed Pope John XXIII — his “window on the world.” Both events stated that it was time for Catholics to embrace the world, to leave the parish enclosure and its protective atmosphere, to move into mainstream society.
The higher education trend of the 1960s was to re-direct the traditional priest-religious vocations of young adult Catholics. Increasingly, numbers of young adult Catholics possess college and universities degrees, opening new paths for leadership. Higher education opens new paths of service to young Catholic men and women. By 2005, some 16.1 million Catholics had graduated from college as almost 600,000 entered college that September.
During the 1980s, attitudes among many young Americans were changing for several reasons. Young college graduates were no longer the first generation in their families to graduate from college, for many they were the third or fourth generation! For many, they were children of middle class families. They were comfortable with the knowledge revolution and conscious of being middle class. Their world was on the verge of change.
The following story illustrates the change that was occurring among young women. In 1995 I was invited, as a priest, to attend a middle management workshop in Washington, D.C., for 200 experienced, non-profit executives. I estimated that over one-third of attendees were Catholics. After chatting with a number of them over a several days, I found myself thinking, “Twenty-five years ago, they would have become religious sisters.” That day they were dedicated to making society better, ministering through non-profit organizations. Their perception of the priest–religious as leader changed — never to revert to the perception of their parents. The collapse in traditional vocations was not a “shot in the dark.”
2. A college education “secularizes” the values of young adults.
From the 1970s on, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California has conducted an annual Freshman Survey of entering first-year students. The 2006 survey found over 39 percent of young men and over 45 percent of young women, when asked which “stated objective” expressed why they wanted a college education, selected “to influence social values.”
Since the survey noted that thirty-two percent of incoming freshmen were Catholics (some 590,000 two years ago), I estimate that those two percentages number between 203,000 and 248,000 young Catholic men and women every year between 1990 and 2006.
Beginning in the late 1980s, young adult college graduates began to embrace non-profits as a way of helping to influence social values. The collapse of the Cold War, coupled with the growing awareness of massive poverty throughout the world, has sparked thousands of young adult Catholics with the belief that they have a duty to apply their faith to improving society.
Millions of Americans were becoming aware of the poor of the world and their human problems. Global communications were bringing into our family rooms the tribulations of the world’s poor: entrenched poverty, widespread child labor, the abuse of young girls and children by sex traffic rings, human rights abuses, failing health (e.g., malaria, AIDS), environmental catastrophes (e.g., drought, floods), and genocide (e.g., Rwanda, Sudan, Congo, Serbia, Darfur).
Catholics and Christians were taking seriously the great parables of Jesus and asking, “What is this life about? Why do I have these gifts?” This concern “to make society better” expressed itself in the growth of service-orientated nonprofit groups in the United States.
Between 1980 and 2000 these groups, concerned with social welfare and public affairs, grew nearly twice as fast as all other nonprofits. Globally, the number of non-government nonprofits (NGOs) registered with the United Nations increased from 6,500 to over 45,000. Most of these groups wrestle with issues of peace and justice.
Further, the concern among many Americans regarding those questions is supported by the thirty million copies of the Reverend Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life that have been sold since it was printed in 2002. This book spawned a personal search among millions for answers to the question, “What on earth am I here for?”
Today young college-educated adults are questioning the poor distribution of the goods of this earth. “Why do I have so much when so many live without necessities?” The reason for this spreading concern for the poor was described by David Bornstein in his 2004 bestseller How to Change the World. He wrote, “More people today have the freedom, time, wealth, health and confidence to address social problems in bold new ways. . . .People recognize that change is urgent.”
3. Young Catholic adults tend to ignore the Church.
The CARA 2000 study of four generations of Catholics found exceptional agreement among young adults about the responsibility to care for the poor and needy. Almost 80 percent of young adults agreed that it is “very important to what it means to be Catholic to help those in need”; the three older generations had scores ranging up to 84 percent. Further, 54 percent of young adult Catholics agreed that they would “be more likely to participate in parish life if there were opportunities to help the poor and needy.”
In the 2001 study Young Adult Catholics: Religion in a Culture of Choice, Dr. Dean Hoge found over 75 percent of non-Latinos — and 83 percent of Latinos — agreeing that Catholics have a duty to close the gap between rich and poor. Hoge commented, “Young Catholics today believe they have a duty to apply their faith to improving society.”1
“Young people are looking to be part of something.” So echoed Father John Cusick of the Archdiocese of Chicago, a 40-year veteran with young adult ministry, developer of Theology-on-Tap and author of The Basic Guide to Young Adult Ministry.
Both the CARA and Hoge studies uncovered a significant interest among young adults in priesthood and religious life. Both studies came up with the same 18 percent who had considered the option of becoming a priest, brother or sister. A good number of our young adults do consider avocation: 18 percent of those 175,000 to 248,000 young Catholics (noted earlier) add up to between 18,000 men and 26,000 women!
4. Vocation directors are asking the right questions.
Most bishops and religious community leaders put serious and massive efforts into vocation recruitment with a vocation office. Each office was staffed by director and staff (numbering two or three). Their success is best measured by the continued erosion in vocations. Make no mistake here. A few dioceses and religious communities experience growth — but the overall numbers of men studying theology remain the same.
I have long been struck by this quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity. . .and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club.” To find some current efforts on our part of challenging young Catholics I searched the Web. A search of the USCCB website led me to the 2002 Executive Summary of the Pastoral Plan for Third Continental Congress on Vocations. I was curious about this “third” congress and the “plan.” What I found and learned was important:
We must connect the whole process of vocation discernment and invitation more directly with concrete service projects, which incarnate here and now the mission of the Church, and which respond to real and pressing needs in the world. . . .This entails a shift from a “candidacy” model in which the primary focus is the individual’s desire to become a priest or religious, to one in which [the individual has shared] involvement in the concrete work of the church. (Italics supplied)2
My reading of the signs of the times support this “shift from the candidacy model.”
I found an interesting position in this sage comment offered by Dr. James Davidson, the Catholic sociologist, in his book Catholicism in Motion: “The sources of the priest shortage are more likely to be found in the Church itself than in societal conditions adversely affecting churches in general.”3 Might an important “source” be a lack of interest in issues of justice and peace? And, if your answer is “yes,” how effective are your parish programs? TP
1 Hoge, Dinges, Johnson, and Gonzales, 2001, Young Adult Catholics, 56.
2 USCCB, 2002. Executive Summary, Conclusion.
3 Davidson, 2005, Catholicism in Motion, 114.
FATHER SCHEETS, O.S.C., is a member of the Crosier Fathers and Brothers Province; he is working on a book on church accountability. He holds a Ph.D. in parish information systems.