The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) has been collecting data about priestly formation for fifty years and therefore is in something of a privileged position when it comes to examining trends over time and their implications for priestly ministry today.

[This article is part of a larger package of stories on the priesthood. Read all of them here.]

As the anecdotal reflections by Paul Blaschko and Barbara Parsons suggest, seminaries now find themselves between a rock and a hard place for several reasons. The first factor is a dramatic decline in the number of priests over the past forty years and a corresponding decline in the number of ordinations. The total number of priests in the United States reached a peak in the late 1960s, and has been decreasing steadily since then. The number of men being ordained each year is only about a third of the number needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying, or leaving. In fact, in the United States more priests die each year than are ordained. This fact puts additional pressure on seminaries to do their very best to retain seminarians.

At the same time, there are more Catholics in the United States today than at any time in the nation’s history. Unlike previous generations, however, these Catholics no longer live where their grandparents and great-grandparents first settled. The demographic and geographic changes have resulted in massive closures of underutilized parishes in the urban core of cities in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest, like those most recently announced in the Archdiocese of New York.

In the South and West, where many Catholics have moved, much larger parishes are being built in the suburbs of major cities. So there are now more Catholics but fewer priests available to staff the large, complex parishes that remain. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the number of Catholic parishes has declined by 7.1 percent—from more than 19,000 in 2000 to fewer than 17,800 in 2010, almost the same number of parishes as in 1965. The national average of registered Catholics per parish is 3,500—an increase of 17 percent from 2000. Many dioceses have been trying to make up for the declining number of priests by bringing in priests from other countries to minister in parishes in the United States. The number of “international priests” has more than doubled over the past fifteen years, from about 3,500 in 1999 to close to 7,000 today. These priests come from India, the Philippines, Nigeria, Mexico, and other countries, and commit to serve in U.S. parishes so that bishops do not have to close or merge existing parishes.

Seminaries have four to five years of post-college priestly formation to train men to be spiritual and pastoral leaders of the small “corporations” that parishes have now become. This is a tall order and not one that seminaries traditionally were set up to handle.

Another factor that is influencing seminaries and priestly formation is the changing ages and experience of seminarians. In the 1970s, young men typically started their training in college (or even high school) seminaries followed by four years of theology. Most were ordained in their mid-twenties. Today, the average age at ordination is mid-thirties. More than half of contemporary seminarians have already completed college, and more than half also have full-time work experience. Some have degrees in chemistry, engineering, medicine, law, and other professional fields as well as years pursuing other occupations. These men bring varied experiences and expectations with them into the seminary, which is both a blessing and a challenge. Being in positions of responsibility and decision-making in secular careers does not necessarily provide you with the skills and training needed to be a good priest. Years of formation are still necessary.

All theologates (graduate-level seminaries) require that candidates who did not attend a college seminary attain an undergraduate degree in philosophy or complete a two-year pretheology program in philosophy. This is followed by four years of graduate training in theology, typically requiring achieving competence in Spanish as well. American seminaries all have field placement programs, which usually means summer work in parishes but may also include time in hospitals, prisons, or schools. Many seminaries also require a year in a ministerial setting under the supervision of a mentoring pastor. By the time of ordination, these men have gone through a rigorous, extended period of academic, spiritual, pastoral, and human formation. Nevertheless, the shortage of priests means that supervised time in a pastoral setting (such as serving as an associate priest in a parish with a resident pastor) is sometimes abbreviated or even eliminated.

Over the past forty years, seminary formation has evolved under the guidance of Pope John Paul II’s Pastores dabo vobis (1992). As a consequence, there were major revisions in formation in the 1980s and 1990s (see The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950–2010, available at the USCCB’s website). To an unprecedented degree, seminary programs formalized and structured human formation, including formation in celibacy. The Program for Priestly Formation, first published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1971 and revised five times since, outlines this process of reform. Candidates for the priesthood now undergo extensive psychological testing and screening. Every seminary has a formal program for teaching and forming men in celibate chastity and moral behavior. I cannot attest to the formation in celibate chastity that Paul Blaschko received, but I do know that CARA has recently been commissioned to survey and evaluate current seminary formation programs with an eye for areas where improvements can be made.

Once ordained, priests are typically placed in a parish as an associate, under the mentorship of an experienced pastor. In the 1960s and ’70s it was not uncommon for associate pastors to chafe under the expectation that it might take twenty-five years before getting a parish of their own. Today, given the shortage of priests, many of the newly ordained find themselves in charge of one or more parishes after serving only briefly as an associate pastor. Where the shortage of priests is particularly severe, some are placed by themselves as the administrator of a parish, under the supervision of a pastor in another parish. These arrangements place a tremendous amount of responsibility on a newly ordained priest and not all of them are equipped to handle this well. Horror stories abound, such as those related by Barbara Parsons.

Generational differences are very likely a contributing factor in some of the parish dynamics alluded to by Parsons. Just as Bing Crosby’s young Fr. O’Malley in Going My Way shocked and appalled his pastor by his breezy pastoral style and willingness to engage the neighborhood toughs, the youngest and least experienced of the newly ordained sometimes clash with long-standing parishioners and parish staffs. Research shows, for example, that priests in their thirties and forties are significantly more likely than older priests to score higher on the “cultic model” scale, which attempts to differentiate between those with more “progressive” ecclesiologies and those with more “traditionalist” expectations (see Same Call, Different Men: The Evolution of the Priesthood since Vatican II). Priests who formed their ministerial identity during and just after Vatican II tend to embrace the “servant-leader” model of leadership. Younger men, influenced by the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, are more likely to emphasize the role of the priest as a “man set apart.” Predictably enough, differences in perspective between younger priests and older parishioners, combined with a lack of experience and pastoral sensitivity, sometimes result in misunderstandings, miscommunication, and even badly executed decisions.

Despite these conflicts and challenges, nine in ten Catholics believe that, on the whole, parish priests do a good job (see American Catholics in Transition). The Catholic priesthood is a difficult calling, with low pay, long hours, and often little professional or personal support beyond the seminary. Nevertheless, there are some thirty-five hundred men in theologates now preparing for this life. About five hundred of them are ordained each year, and nearly all say they are happy with their life as a priest, even after many years of ministry. Priestly formation is still far from ideal, but to meet the needs of an ever-changing church seminaries are continually revising curricula and formation programs in consultation with vocation directors, faculty, and other experts. Progress is being made.

Mary Gautier is senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
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