When the subject of priests and the future finds its way into the conversations of American Catholics, most likely the first comment will be that in the years ahead the Church in this country will have fewer priests than now, or considerably fewer than would have been the case a generation ago.
It will be a correct assessment. For years, the number of men enrolling in seminaries has declined. The decline has been sharp if these figures are read opposite the numbers studying for the priesthood 30 or certainly 40 years ago.
The good news is that we may be turning the corner. The rectors of two of the best-known American seminaries have told me within the past several months that applications are enough presently that they are beginning to wonder if they will have adequate space.
Let’s hope these observations represent an upturn generally.
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However the numbers will go, American Catholics in the next several years will notice that the new priest in their parish is older than newly ordained priests once generally would have been. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has noted that the median age of priests to be ordained this spring and summer in this country is 32. If a man completes high school, completes the four years of college required to begin priestly studies, and then is in graduate study of theology for the requisite four years, then, according to the arithmetic, he should be 26 at ordination — as was I and the overwhelming majority of my seminary classmates.
Men today are going to high school, then to college, and often to graduate school for some profession or occupation, then going into the workforce for a period of years, and then they decide to study for the priesthood. Usually, they are much more streetwise. They have seen and experienced life.
For example, of the two men to be ordained for the priesthood of my diocese this season, one attended the Coast Guard Academy and was in the Coast Guard. The other attended a college that was not a seminary, thinking about a career in business. Both lived the lives of average young American males.
Their stories are typical. They will join the diocesan priestly fraternity that includes several attorneys, a physician, a couple of school teachers, and a crowd of men who worked in various businesses.
Also noticeable in the future will be the fact that many new priests will be natives of countries other than the United States. The CARA study also reported that 31 percent of the priests being ordained this year were born in places other than this country. The two new priests for my diocese are native-born Americans. Of the seven men expecting to be ordained priests next year in my home diocese, two were born in Latin America, one in Africa and one in Vietnam.
Quite a few candidates for the priesthood are converts to Catholicism. In every likelihood they came to pursue the priesthood not because of the cultural environment surrounding them, their family or their having gone to Catholic schools, but because they came to the Catholic religion after a deep, personal search to find God, and having found God, they want to serve God with everything in their lives.
All in all, I am convinced that the news is good. Seminary training these days is decidedly better than it was in my day. It is still long, and it is intense. This is good. (To be ordained, a priest must be able to present about 120 semester hours of graduate theological education, not including college, plus clinical experience and psychological assessments my generation never faced.)
A new day is coming in the American priesthood. It will be bright.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.