On Easter Monday, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released some statistics on those being ordained to the priesthood in the United States this year. Continuing the downward trend of recent years, the average age of ordinands continues to get younger. More than half those ordained this year are between 25 and 34. One-third were born outside the United States. Ten percent are of Asian or Pacific Island ancestry - more than the comparable percentage of adult Asian/Pacific Catholics in the US. But only 14% are Hispanic - obviously less than the comparable percentage of adult Latino Catholics in the US.
What I found most interesting about the report, however, was what it suggests about the importance of lifelong involvement in the Church. Overwhelmingly (90%) those being ordained this year have been Catholics since childhood; 80% come from families where both parents were Catholic; 71% were altar servers; and one-third are related to a priest or religious. Among those who attended college or university before seminary, 67% attended a Catholic institution - compared with only 7% of the overall adult Catholic population. This seems to highlight the common-sense view that the longer and more deeply rooted one is in Catholic faith and life, the more likely a vocation is to develop. I've heard it said that good Catholic marriages resulting in strong Catholic families are ultimately the most effective vocation directors. These numbers certainly seem to confirm that!
There will always be priests who converted to Catholicism as adults - e.g., Blessed John Henry Newman and Servant of God Isaac Hecker - and those of Catholic background whose eventual vocation evolved more circuitously, at the completion of a lengthy spiritual search - e.g. St. Augustine. The Church has obviously been blessed by such vocations. But the majority of vocations will likely always come from those long and deeply rooted in the faith and actively engaged in the Church's life.
It has often been remarked that encouragement from a priest is also often a common factor. In fact, 66% of this year's priests-to-be report such encouragement from their parish priest. That says something, of course, about those priests' perception of their role in fostering vocations. But it also highlights the fact that those potential vocations must have been present (and visible) in parishes!
So the numbers - such as they are - seem to confirm what we more or less always knew - or should have known. Vocations develop in vibrant Catholic families and communities. Vibrant Catholic families and communities encourage and foster vocations. And forming and sustaining vibrant Catholic families and communities must be an essential focus for the Church's institutional energies.