By Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) – The college experience – and the Catholic college experience, especially – can influence a young man’s decision toward considering a priestly vocation, according to a study issued in early July by Boston College.
Among the factors that have helped sway a man’s decision to enter priestly life are access to clergy at the college as well as access to the Mass and other elements of Catholic life.
“College Experience and Priesthood” distills a Boston college-hosted summit last year on priestly vocations, as well as research conducted in 2012 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington. Both Boston College and Georgetown are Jesuit-run institutions.
In January, 2012, Boston College and the Jesuit Conference USA commissioned CARA to assess the impact of Catholic higher education on the vocational discernment of men entering the seminary and religious life in the United States in an effort to identify what led them to the seminary and/or eventual ordination.
At the summit, attended by about 90 people, including bishops and university leaders from around the country, participants were urged to develop a consistent framework for inviting young men to consider the priesthood.
“It really starts with us who are clergy and vowed religious,” said Jesuit Father William Leahy, Boston College’s president, in an address during the summit. “There is nothing as powerful as happy, fulfilled priests and religious. That is contagious. That attracts. If we are not happy, fulfilled, ready to recruit others, they will not follow us. We know that as a group, priests are happy in their ministry.”
Father Leahy urged the establishment of priesthood support groups on Catholic college campuses.
“These are often led by the president, lending certain seriousness to the effort, but they could also be led by a campus minister or a faculty member,” he said.
“Students who are thinking about priesthood often feel isolated. If they can be part of a group that meets once a month, have time for prayer and conversation, and hear the vocation stories of others, they will feel encouraged, and can confirm a sense of direction.”
Like baseball scouts, Father Leahy said, “we need people who will identify individuals who have talent, inclination, and desire, who can be pointed in the direction of priesthood and religious life.”
Seminary enrollment peaked 50 years ago at about 47,000, took a steep dive in the decade that followed, and continued a steady decline until the mid-1990s and appears to have leveled off since then to just over 5,000 students.
Not all who are enrolled at seminaries, though, are ordained to the priesthood. “We need about 200 more ordinations per year to return to stability,” said Mark Gray of CARA at the summit.
While about 7 percent of the U.S. Catholic population attended a Catholic college, 44 percent of ordinands did.