Study offers strategies for increasing vocations

Father David Frederici attended a public state college in Worcester, Massachusetts, but an active campus ministry there helped him learn and live the Faith in new and deeper dimensions. 

A full-time priest-chaplain at Worcester State College regularly celebrated Mass and got to know Father Frederici and his classmates in social settings, on and off campus. Through informal conversations about the Catholic Faith, the priesthood, vocation discernment, as well as the chaplain’s encouragement, Father Frederici, 42, came to better understand the call to the priesthood he first felt in high school.

“I’ve always been convinced of the importance of campus ministry because of my own vocation story,” said Father Frederici, who runs the college campus ministry program for the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts.

Father Frederici described as a “no-brainer” a recent study from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate that says men who pursue vocations to the priesthood are likely to have been encouraged by a priest, a friend or another supporter. The study, which was commissioned by Boston College and Jesuit Conference USA, also finds that men discerning a priestly vocation were more likely to have attended a Catholic college or university, where they encountered priest-professors and had more access to Mass and spiritual direction.

“What we’re hoping emerges from this study is a realization of the importance of a person saying to a guy, ‘Hey, you should be thinking about the priesthood. You’re great with people; you have a real sense of prayer and a peaceful way about you.’ It’s a reminder to me to be more direct and ask someone, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’” said Timothy Muldoon, a Boston College theology professor who serves in the Division of University Mission and Ministry, which sponsored a “Summit on Vocations to the Priesthood” last summer to discuss the study with bishops, vocations directors, and academic and lay leaders.

‘Have to be strategic’

Muldoon told Our Sunday Visitor that Boston College and Jesuit Conference USA commissioned the CARA study to better understand the type of strategic planning needed to foster priestly vocations, which may include determining whether it is more effective to release some priests to serve as spiritual directors, classroom teachers and campus ministers.

“Nowadays, we really have to be strategic. ... There has to be targeted thinking about where you go, who you target, how you go about it,” said Muldoon, who used the analogy of a baseball farm system, where promising young talent is scouted and developed. “The men are out there. If they’re hearing the encouragement, they’re going to show up, they’re going to be thinking about it, and that can only be good for the Church.”

Between April and June 2012, the CARA study surveyed more than 1,500 men who were either in the seminary or recently ordained, making it one of the largest recent surveys of men in formation and newly ordained. The resulting report — “College Experiences and Priesthood” — found that just having one person encourage a priestly vocation makes it twice as likely that someone will discern that call. Having three people or more offer encouragement makes it five times more likely that someone will consider a priestly vocation.

“Encouragement is not the same as casting a magical spell,” Muldoon said. “What you’re doing is echoing for them something that they’re already hearing from God. You’re naming for them something that they’ve already intuited, but maybe not yet put a name to it.”

James Cavendish, a University of South Florida sociology professor and the lead author of the CARA study, told OSV that the support of family and friends is crucial for priestly vocations.

“It’s still very much a countercultural thing to enter into a state of life that entails celibacy,” Cavendish said. “Unless people feel that they have the support of a community, they are probably unlikely to take that step.”

Role models needed

Cavendish said the college experience is an especially critical time for vocational discernment.

“It’s a time in people’s lives when they’re thinking about what their future will be, what they want to commit their lives to,” Cavendish said. “It’s also a time when people are going to be exposed to role models apart from their own families, especially if they go away to college.”

Ryan Muldoon, a 23-year-old seminarian for the Archdiocese of New York who worked as a CARA research assistant for two years and co-authored the vocations report, told OSV that solid priestly examples can also be strong encouraging factors for young men to discern the call.

“The priest might model a life that is attractive to a young person, who in getting to know the priest might say to themselves, ‘I can see myself doing what a priest does. He seems to be really happy and fulfilled doing that,’” said Muldoon, no relation to Timothy Muldoon. 

Having a vibrant, on-campus Catholic support system reinforces the discernment process during a critical time in young people’s lives, in part by cultivating a “culture of vocations” that the wider Church community would be wise to ponder.

“My favorite image is from a colleague of mine at Boston College who says it’s almost like a pinball machine. We launch them into the college experience, and they’re bumping up against all these different Catholic things, so there is a cumulative that happens as a result of bumping against all these people and activities,” said Tim Muldoon, who added that he was surprised by another aspect of the CARA report, which found that 350,000 never-married Catholic men have “seriously considered” the priesthood.

“That is a lot of guys,” Tim Muldoon said. “If we even get 1 percent of those 350,000, that’s going to solve our priesthood problem in this country.”

Overcoming obstacles

The report also finds that many men enter the seminary after college, and that one-third of them have educational debt that averages around $30,000. Dioceses and religious orders, for the most part, have been successful in finding creative ways to accept those candidates into formation.

Cavendish also pointed toward the importance of college students finding a spiritual director.

“It’s an opportunity where they’re able to reflect deeply on their life and what God might be calling them to,” Cavendish said. “It would be great for Catholic student centers and campus ministry programs to encourage young men and women to consider entering into spiritual direction, regardless of whether they are thinking about becoming a priest or religious.”

Another potential barrier to priestly vocations is the fact that Hispanics are underrepresented in the priesthood: Only 15 percent of ordinands in the United States this year are Hispanic. Taking into consideration that only 14 percent of students in Catholic schools today are Hispanic, that means the majority of Hispanic Catholics in the United States are missing a potential source of vocational encouragement.

“We absolutely have to find those guys,” Timothy Muldoon said.

Report’s suggestions

The CARA report offers some specific directives, such as forming a pastoral plan to develop a culture of vocations on campuses; creating strategies so that student debt will not be an obstacle to priestly vocations; having diocesan vocation directors or parish priests build connections with campuses by celebrating Mass or attending retreats; and offering formation programs for lay leaders, especially in the Hispanic community.

Father Frederici said he is starting a new program designed to help college students discern their vocation, whether that be marriage, the priesthood or religious life.

“For many students, the thought of discernment is very foreign to them,” Father Frederici said. “Sixty or 70 yeas ago, formation was stressed more in the family than in society, but now that’s not the case. I think your average 18-year-old is less prepared now for life decisions than what he or she was 50 years ago. That is why I think there is a greater need now for campus ministry.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.