Vocations in America
Contrary to popular perception, religious vocations in America are on the rise . . .
When people talk about a vocations “crisis,” they usually refer to the scarcity of men and women entering religious life. But the word takes on a whole new meaning for the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. They’ve witnessed an explosion of vocations.
“We have a crisis of another kind,” said Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz, the order’s vocations director. “In the last 12 years we have gone from four sisters to 99. The average age of our sisters is 26. If anything, we have a real estate crisis.”
Sister Joseph Andrew jokes that if this trend continues, the new sisters will have to sleep in hallways and closets. Based in Ann Arbor, Mich., the Sisters of Mary wear a traditional habit, live in community and make a daily holy hour. But the sisters are perhaps best known for their profound joy.
To be sure, most seminaries and convents aren’t suffering from a “real estate crisis,” but statistics show that vocations have risen over the past 15 years.
“There is a growing trend,” said Fr. David Toups, director of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. “It’s not a dramatic increase, but it’s steady. Since the mid-’90s, the number of men being ordained has risen by about 2% a year.” According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at GeorgetownUniversity, 442 men in the U.S.were ordained to the priesthood in 2000; 454 in 2005; and 472 this year.
Statistics are equally positive for religious orders. A landmark study commissioned by the National Religious Vocations Conference (NRVC) earlier this year found that 6,000 men and women have entered the religious life over the past 10 years — 43% of them under 30 years old.
“What we’re finding is a trend among young vocations,” said Patrice Tuohy, executive director of Vision Vocation Guide, the publishing partner for the NRVC study. “They’re interested in wearing a habit and living in community. This was not true of the older vocations.”
While some are looking for a more traditional religious practice, others pursue orders focusing on missionary and justice work. Catholic identity, however, unites these two trends. “People are very proud of being Catholic, and they want to mine the traditions of the faith,” Tuohy said.
The fastest-growing orders have sophisticated websites and dedicated vocation teams with organized discernment retreats. They’re also attracting younger vocations.
“These are young men who just graduated high school — 18 to 20 years old,” said Rose Sullivan, executive director of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors (NCDVD). “Whereas before we used to see more second-career vocations — men who had finished college and worked a few years — now it’s the younger guys.”
One Michigan parish — Christ the King in Ann Arbor — has had more than 20 men ordained in the last 10 years. Twenty-four parishioners are now in the seminary, and more than 20 women have made vows in religious orders. A dozen more women are currently in formation.
Deacon Dan Foley, a member of Legatus’ Ann Arbor Chapter, serves at Christ the King. He said vocations flow from having supportive families, strong priestly leadership and Eucharistic adoration.
“We try to foster an environment where members of the parish have a chance to encounter Christ,” he said. “If you have no personal relationship with the Lord, then you can’t hear the call.”
The parish of only 800 families has a perpetual adoration chapel where parishioners can spend time with the Lord around the clock. “We constantly have people in front of the Eucharist,” Foley said.
Sullivan, too, has noticed the incredible response to Eucharistic adoration in her diocese of Rockville Center, N.Y.
“Six months after Pope Benedict XVI came to New York last year, we decided to organize a holy hour for young men who were discerning a vocation,” said Sullivan. “We got 125 college kids at the first holy hour.”
After the first meeting, the diocese organized a monthly holy hour. At each meeting, they offered Eucharistic Adoration, a hero sandwich and time to play dodge ball.
“Last month, we had 325 kids from eighth grade to college age,” said Sullivan. “And believe me, they weren’t there for the dodge ball or the hero!
“Vocations are coming from these kids. They sit before the Blessed Sacrament asking God, ‘I need to know what you want me to do,’” she said. “Our lives are crazy busy with cell phones, e-mail and Blackberries. When we turn down the volume, we allow the Lord to break through. Adoration is helping vocations, and it’s not just about the priesthood. It’s any vocation.”
The USCCB’s Fr. Toups attributes vocations growth to Pope John Paul II’s 27-year pontificate and his renewal of the Church’s vision of the priesthood.
“There was great confusion after Vatican II among the laity and the priesthood about their nature,” said Fr. Toups. “John Paul II’s pontificate recovered that identity. Now we have the John Paul II generation responding to the invitation to ‘be not afraid.’ Men are seeking that – especially in dioceses where bishops are strong supporters of vocations.”
Sister Joseph Andrew concurs. “The John Paul II generation is looking for sacrifice,” she said. “They don’t want to mitigate the sacrifice. They want the habit. They don’t want to enter a place of confusion. God is generous with open hearts that go for the ideal. Young people want heroism and totality. Anything else rings as shallow.”
So is there a vocations crisis in America?
“Absolutely not,” said Tuohy. “There is a call to renewal. People really want to serve the Church in courageous ways. It’s a hopeful time.”
“When Pope Benedict came to Dunwoodie Seminary, I went with 80 discerners and 120 college kids,” said Sullivan. “When he walked out on stage you should have seen the reaction, the energy of this event. I remember thinking, ‘There is no vocations crisis here.’”
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.