What's the profile of the typical new priest today?

What’s the profile of the typical priest being ordained in America this year? 

Well, in keeping with a five-year trend, he’s younger (the average age is 34), steeped in parish life from an early age (71 percent were altar servers) and Catholic-educated (67 percent attended Catholic college, compared with 7 percent of the total adult Catholic population in the United States). 

That’s the snapshot presented in the annual report on new ordinands commissioned by the U.S. bishops’s conference and carried out by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. It is based on a survey of 329 ordinands from 128 different U.S. dioceses and a variety of religious orders. That’s about 70 percent of the 480 men expected to be ordained this year. 

One statistic that really jumped out at me, but which was not given much attention in the press release accompanying the survey, maybe for good reasons, was this fact: Many come from bigger families. 53 percent had three siblings or more, 37 percent had four siblings or more, and 24 percent had five siblings or more. 

I’ve begun to hunt for data on the average size of a Catholic family these days, but it is probably not that far off from the national average, which according to the 2000 census, was 3.14 people — so, one or two kids. 

So it seems significant that these ordinands, by and large, come from bigger-than-average families, and even from just plain big families. (Only 4 percent reported no siblings, 19 percent reported one sibling and 24 percent reported 2 siblings.) 

Especially when you pair that statistic with another one contained in another recent bishops’ survey, this time on women making perpetual vows in religious life last year. You ready for this? A full 77 percent reported having three or more siblings. Sixty-four percent reported four or more siblings, and 44 percent reported five or more siblings. 

And if these numbers do indicate that somehow big families are more likely to produce vocations, whether to the priesthood or religious life, what is the reason? 

One possible reason is that it might be easier for parents with lots of children to be more encouraging of openness to a vocation. There are other children to produce grandchildren and pass on the family name. 

Or it could also be that, as chaotic as big families might sometimes be, they can be a favorable environment to learn selfless love, humility and the importance of service to the community. That’s good preparation not just for marriage but for priestly or religious life. 

I’ve also seen some people link the rise in contraceptive use by Catholic couples to the vocations dearth. Well, if smaller families are the result of contraceptive use, and priests and religious women are more likely to come from bigger families, I guess that makes some sense. 

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