Tradition = vocations – It isn’t rocket science

I contend that the shortage of vocations is a self-inflicted wound.

Yesterday, here in the Diocese of Madison, the Extraordinary Ordinary and the seminarians concluded a week of praying together, talks, activities, hanging out with each other and priests.  Among other things, we distributed a terrific book which you readers bought for them and the new guys were measured for birettas.  If there is one thing that these guys understand: the bishop and vocations director have their backs.  The bishop and director know that seminarians will play it straight with them.  The whole diocese knows how much care the bishop puts into vocations.  They are conspicuous.  Result: young men answer invitations to consider the priesthood.

Marco Tosatti, in First Things, opines about a sharp downturn in vocations to the priesthood. My emphases and comments:

by Marco Tosatti

The recovery in priestly vocations seems to be over. Between 1978 and 2012, after the great crisis of the 1970s following Vatican II, seminaries around the world enjoyed a season of growth. The growth was not constant, nor was it uniform across countries and continents. But the trend was clear. Numbers revealed recently by the Central Office of Statistics of the Holy See show that in the past five years, the vocations crisis has returned.

The greatest gains came under John Paul II. In 1978, the year Karol Wojtyla was elected pope, vocations worldwide totaled 63,882. In 2005, the year he died, they totaled 114,439. The numbers continued to rise during the reign of Benedict XVI: Vocations reached their modern peak in 2011, with 120,616—an increase of 6,177 since the papal transition year. After 2011, they drifted downward: to 120,051 in 2012, and 118,251 in 2013, the year of Benedict’s resignation. Thus, vocations in 2013 were down 2,365 from their height under Benedict, and up 3,812 from their height under John Paul.

In March 2013, Pope Francis emerged from the conclave as the new ruler of the Church. [NB] Data suggest that his pontificate has not accelerated the decline in vocations from their height in 2011, but has not reversed or arrested it, either. In 2015 there were 116,843 seminarians—a drop of 1,408 from 2013. If this rate of decline continues, then in a year or two vocations will be roughly where they were when John Paul died. Yet we will actually be in worse shape than we were then. As Catholics grow more numerous worldwide, the Catholics-per-priest ratio worsens. For instance, there were 2,900 Catholics per priest worldwide in 2010, and 3,091 in 2015.  [Another thing: consider the number of priests who will die or retire.  In most places, ordinations do not match attrition.  I know one diocese where, in a couple years, some 50% of the priests will be out of active ministry.]

The vocations downturn is particularly evident in the West, especially in European countries where secularization and religious liberalism are strongest: Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland. In countries such as Poland and continents such as Africa, where Catholicism remains more traditional, the situation is different. Vocations hold steady, and sometimes flourish.  [There it is.]

A few examples will serve to illustrate. In the diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal atmosphere prevailed until 2003—a year that had six seminarians. Robert Morlino became bishop that year, and his efforts brought the number of seminarians to 36 in 2015. Following the advice of Robert Cardinal Sarah, Bishop Morlino recently suggested that the faithful should receive the Eucharist on the tongue and while kneeling. A similar situation may be found in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. Bishop James D. Conley has explained to the Catholic World Report that, in his opinion, the growth of vocations in his diocese had its root in fidelity to the traditional teachings of the Church.

In western Europe, the landscape is totally different. In Germany, vocations have become practically nonexistent. In 2016, there was just one new seminarian in Munich, the historic capital city of German Catholicism. In Belgium, the situation is perhaps still worse. In 2016, there was not a single new Francophone seminarian in the country. The heroic André-Joseph Léonard, archbishop of Brussels from 2010 to 2015, had given life to a new association, the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles. In a period of three years, the Fraternity had assembled twenty-one seminarians and six priests. The current archbishop of Brussels, Jozef De Kesel, was appointed a cardinal immediately upon his installation—an honor denied to Léonard. De Kesel quickly dissolved the Fraternity. The official reason was formal and flimsy; the real one was substantial. The Fraternity was not liberal enough; it respected tradition.  [There it is.]

Brussels is not an isolated case. […]  [Hardly.]

He goes on to write about the Franciscans Friars of the Immaculate and the Heralds of the Gospel who are being persecuted because the are traditional.

Where I am, we pray for vocations.  Every Sunday, after the Gospel, we pray as we did at my home parish.  HERE  The prayer includes the line:

“Bless our families, bless our children. Choose from our homes those who are needed for Thy work.”

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. graytown says:

    I once mentioned to a fellow Catholic that female servers were a hindrance to priestly vocations.
    He laughed at me.

  2. JustaSinner says:

    Love the arrow to the altar BOYS with “future priests”!

  3. mburn16 says:

    I would be curious to see what the priest:weekly mass attender ratio was. No doubt we have more Catholics and fewer Priests, but there has been such a shrinkage in the number of the devout that I could conceivably see that ratio holding closer to steady. Someone on here made mention some time ago that what we are really seeing in some cases will be a lack of Priests to attend to the non-existent parishioners at the churches that have been shuttered.

  4. Father Bartoloma says:

    The Tait!

  5. Charivari Rob says:


    There are (at least) two answers to your question.

    I assume you were (most likely) asking about current numbers of priests and weekly Mass attendees. I have no idea, but I suspect one of the recent CARA reports has the information.

    The second angle is “formation of future priests by weekly Mass attendance”. For a few years, I’ve quietly pushed reading the data. In Boston, during one of the rounds of parish planning a few years ago, I saw some interesting historical data and I wish it was studied more. Over the years here, through different eras and liturgy and attitudes, there has been a fairly consistent relationship between the number of people who attend Mass weekly and the number of ordinations to the priesthood. The ratio of one number to the other had some variation, but seemed to stay in a range. Five decades ago or five years ago, in Latin then or the vernacular more recently, “pre-V2” or “post-V2”, the numbers of ordinations to the priesthood reflect the numbers of Catholics observing one of basic bricks of tradition – Sunday observance.

  6. lmgilbert says:

    In response to the vocations crisis those in the vocation promotions biz have been pushing the “culture of vocation,” which has come to mean “the vocations cross” being handed off to a new family at Sunday Mass every week, “come and see” weekends and the like.

    While I have no quarrel with anything Marco Tosatti wrote, there may be one aspect of the vocations boom in conservative circles that he may be missing, the traditional quality of family life, a true culture of vocation. Is it not obvious that the quiet, devout atmosphere of Catholic homes of an earlier era gave many priests and nuns to the Church? Then came movies, radio, TV, the internet, in other words hyper-distraction, our families and our souls filled with a great deal of noise, all of it secularizing. This is not what one finds, however, when he looks into the home life of those entering traditional orders today, but rather mass media severely restricted if not missing altogether, the lives of the saints being read, and a home life filled with the good, the true and the beautiful.

    Perhaps, then, we have mistaken our crisis altogether and do not have a vocations crisis so much as a parenting crisis. One looks into the home of Louis and Zellie Martin, for example, and finds a family gathering around the parents, the lives of the saints being read . . .a culture of vocation that produced St. Therese. The same was true of the home of Solanus Casey. From his biography, Thank God Ahead of Time by Michael Crosby:

    “At a time when television and movies were not even imagined…stories and songs provided the Casey family with sufficient entertainment. Especially when snows landlocked the family, this kind of entertainment kept spirits from becoming morose. Often the children played games. Other times Barney Sr. and Ellen gathered everyone around the dining room for an evening of literature. Barney Sr. would read the poems of Tom Moore besides those of Longfellow and Whittier. Stories like Cooper’s The Deerslayer held the children fascinated for long periods of time.

    “Bernard and Ellen Casey were creating a caring environment which enabled young Casey to become well-integrated and balanced. For their role in his spiritual formation, the future Solanus would be forever grateful… In many ways Solanus was able to be who he was precisely because of the way his parents nourished him in his youth.”

    THAT is the culture of vocation. It was surely the seedbed of Solanus Casey’s vocation, the sine qua non of his sanctity and of his being raised to the altars. Yet, this sort of program does not require a benevolent and wise bishop, nor a Catholic school system available to every child, nor even a conservative parish and traditional liturgy ( though all of this is very desirable), but simply parents intent on seeing their children given the formation, the culture and the baptism of the imagination that will carry them to heaven. It is within the reach and within the budget of virtually every parent in the Church, and both incredibly simple and delightful to implement.

  7. byzantinesteve says:

    I absolutely agree that there is a correlation between orthodoxy and vocations. However, the diocese of St Petersburg remains an outlier in this regard. For 15 years or so, they had arguably the most obnoxious liberal bishop in the country who, at times, used his blog as a platform to pummel orthodox Catholics (or at least the straw man version he created). And still, that diocese was constantly flush with vocations.

    Does anyone in that diocese care to speculate why there continued to be a slew of vocations there despite very poor leadership at the top?

  8. As a guy reaching the 20s and feeling the call to the priesthood, I can support this. Not surprising, out of maybe fifty parishioners attending the local Latin Mass, there’s around four (including myself) who are considering priesthood/religious life…

  9. ChesterFrank says:

    Yes, it is a self inflicted wound. In some areas it has been a well orchestrated campaign. While some priests are serving two and three parishes due to the shortage, their colleagues are actively campaigning for married priests, women priests and suitable parish life directors. I wonder which parts of the USA have the greatest shortages of priests, the most parishes closing, and the most liberal clergy.

  10. Jackie L says:

    In the Archdiocese within which I reside, there are 27 vocations for the Archdiocese, the churches that celebrate the EF have 11 vocations (not all for the Archdiocese).

  11. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    Honestly, what are the rational arguments against the fact that traditional diocese/bishops and/or orders have more vocations?

  12. stuartal79 says:

    Byzantinsteve, there must have been good influences somewhere in your diocese.

  13. terentiaj63 says:

    The diocese in which I live has recently undergone the closing of half the parishes in the diocese. This is only a holding action. Within 5 years fewer than half the remaining parishes will have a priest We are now beginning to hear about plans for Sunday services without a priest. One of our prior bishops was a notorious dissenter, who believed that if the priest crisis got bad enough then the Church would have to ordain women. So, he ordained about 12 priests over 24 years of his bishopric. The two bishops we have had since have ordained several priests a year but the shortage is so great that it’s not enough. I’m hearing that the newest priests are quite traditional but the “deep state” in the diocesan offices make things difficult for them. Pray for our current bishop who is working “brick by (very slow and gradual) brick” to improve our situation.

  14. crownvic says:

    We pray this prayer all the time here in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati:


  15. christopherschaefer says:

    Here’s how my parish–St. Mary’s, Norwalk, Connecticut, USA–slowly is solving the vocation crisis (as well as the faith crisis, Mass attendance crisis, heterodoxy crisis, etc., etc.):
    I think the pastor would appreciate it greatly, Fr. Z, if you featured this video and the information below it in one of your “brick by brick” columns.

    [Would he? He should drop me a line sometime!]

  16. Papabile says:

    Arlington Diocese
    453,000 plus Catholics
    256 Priests
    41 Seminarians.

  17. Knight from 13904 says:

    No doubt in my mind that this is a self-inflicted wound by liberal/modernist/Masons/etc within the hierarchy. The solution is so obvious. Encourage the spread of the TLM within a diocese. The TLM is one side of the coin, the other is the removal of all active homosexual priest.
    The FSSP parish I attend in New Hampshire regularly has 8-10 alter servers at Sunday Mass. I am constantly amazed and personally strengthen but the commitment these young men/boys have during Mass. I see young boys in second or third grade that have learned the responses and serve during daily Mass. I can see in the faces of a handful of the older servers, teenagers, the reverence and focus they demonstrate week in and week out. I have no doubt that some of these young men will respond to the call to the priesthood. I know that myself and others within our parish see the same thing and are praying for these men.
    Join the fraternity and the FSSP and pray everyday for our pastors and for vocations.

    Thank you Fr. Z for all you are doing for our Church in general and priestly vocations in specific. God bless you.

  18. Knight from 13904 says:

    correction – join the confraternity of St. Peter.

  19. The Masked Chicken says:

    Byzantinesteve wrote:

    “Does anyone in that diocese care to speculate why there continued to be a slew of vocations there despite very poor leadership at the top?”

    This got me thinking. Apparently, there is an alarming correlation between certain liberal dioceses and the presence of clown colleges:

    Now, the top clown college was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey College in Sarasota, Florida, which is only 50 miles from St. Petersburg. Coincidence?

    Seriously, the correlation with vocations is not exactly Tradition, per se, but Holiness – the separateness of the Priesthood as an heroic call. Holiness correlates with Tradition, but if you can sell social justice or liberalism as a holy cause, you might attract people with a predisposition in that area.

    Of course, I could be wrong about the situation in St. Petersburg, because I have no data from which to work, so, the above is pure speculation (and a bit of clowning around).

    The Chicken

  20. hwriggles4 says:

    I experienced firsthand the growth of vocations in several Texas dioceses. The bishop does matter (Fort Worth, Austin, Galveston Houston, and Dallas have increased quite a bit under newer shepherds – particularly Fort Worth since 2005 and Austin since the late 1990s), the seminary does matter, and good Catholic Student Centers that are faithful to the magesterium (Texas A and M, Texas Tech, and Baylor are all good, as well as support for traditional marriage at these schools). These aren’t rocket science either – my reversion story began at Texas A and M University.

    The Diocese of Austin today has several native Texan priests today under 50 years of age who are solid and faithful – good role models.

  21. sibnao says:

    That is a great picture! It reminds me of our FSSP parish here in the Twin Cities. I can tell you from first-hand experience (mother of two teen sons) that the male-only service at the altar is huge. My younger son (who had no Latin instruction at first) struggled mightily to learn the responses and I hoped he would not be demoralized by the difficulty — you have to remember which responses to say, say them right, be in the right place, make the right motions, etc. Well, I need not have worried — it took him a year, and now he is advancing through the well-defined and somewhat martial ranks, such that now he is entrusted with the thurible. (And hasn’t set anything on fire yet!)

    Furthermore, there is a noticeable esprit d’corps with the boys who serve (and every boy in the parish is expected to serve when he gets old enough). That kind of joshing and nudging, plus a high level of seriousness in the sanctuary, is far, far more likely to make priesthood attractive to him than just about any amount of inspirational videos or invitations to consider it because of the priest shortage.

  22. sibnao says:

    One more thing: Probably a quirk, but not only are there plenty of men in the pews at our parish, but our families all have lots of sons! Maybe God has a plan there…

  23. robtbrown says:


    I followed your link, only to learn of the death of an old friend from my Roman days, Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro. I knew he had not been well but not that he had died.

    Somewhere among my books is a copy of his dissertation.

  24. Michael in NoVA says:

    Papabile says:

    Your statistics are I think the most recent for the Diocese of Arlington, and that speaks to the orthodoxy and care of retired Bishop Loverde. I wouldn’t be surprised if vocations continue to flourish under Bishop Burbidge.

    I’m not sure how things are in other vocation-rich environments, but the Diocese of Arlington also has a quite substantial number of homeschoolers. Even thought the local public schools are among the tops in the nation, and the diocese has many outstanding options at both the elementary and high school level, the homeschool community is booming, and a substantial number of vocations have come through this community. I wonder if that is part of the reason Bishop Burbidge is planning on hosting what is referred to as the First Annual Homeschool Mass and picnic this fall.

    Either way, I wonder if there is a similarity between the relative size of the homeschool community and the support of the bishop in vocation-rich dioceses compared to those dioceses that have fewer homeschoolers and/or bishops who take a dimmer view of homeschoolers.

  25. PTK_70 says:

    I’ll go out on a limb, hwriggles4, and say that the future of the Catholic Church in Texas is bright, if for no other reason than the existence of St Mary’s Catholic Center and the campus ministry program at Texas A&M University. I might only wish that they would allow for regular celebration of Mass according to the older form of the Roman Rite. Or at least bring on-board a choir master who could establish a plainchant choir. Perhaps I need to become a big-time donor to help make that happen….haha!

  26. ChesterFrank says:

    Do you think part of the problem might be that Catholic priests are slowly being morphed into Protestant ministers and preachers?

  27. WarriorSpirit says:

    Please pray for those who don’t have access to these Traditional services. Many Catholics in America are being virtually left to their own devices.

  28. Jennifer P says:

    Why is it that bishops cannot see these things?

    If you celebrate the liturgy correctly and prayerfully the people are formed, and from them come vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

    If you do not celebrate the liturgy correctly and prayerfully the people are not formed, and from them come few – if any – vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

    I am a Byzantine (Ruthenian) Catholic. In 2007 the bishops “revised” the Divine Liturgy. It’s a much abbreviated version of the normative form – sort of a mandatory “Low Mass” with gender neutral language and bad music. Lots of people have left. Some parishes are down by half. But anyone who complained was pointed to the door. And if you talk with the bishops they are filled with contempt for those who want the fullness of our liturgical tradition. There are almost no vocations at all. The salvation so far has been to bring in priests from Europe. Many of them are fine men and I appreciate them. But they are a stop gap. Not a solution. But the bishops are firm in their path towards revision and gender neutrality.

    Why can’t they see the harm they are doing to the Church?

    Other then pray for them, what can those of us in the pews do?

  29. RobW says:

    We pray the vocations prayer at my parish as well at Mater Ecclesiae in Berlin N.J. I love this TLM parish…what a blessing!

  30. TonyO says:

    Papabile says:

    Your statistics are I think the most recent for the Diocese of Arlington, and that speaks to the orthodoxy and care of retired Bishop Loverde. I wouldn’t be surprised if vocations continue to flourish under Bishop Burbidge.

    So far as I can surmise: In reality, the fairly good vocations bubble that is Arlington VA started with the first bishop, Thomas Welsh, and the amazing cadre of good priests in 1974. Bishop Welsh had an excellent vocations program. His successor Bishop Keating appointed (and supported) an absolutely phenomenal vocations director, Fr. Gould, and had (top quality) vocations rolling in. It helped that he was one of only 2 bishops in the US in 1994 that refused to allow girl altar boys – showed his mind and heart were in the right place. I think the best year saw 13 priestly ordinations (with 350,000 Catholics and 70 parishes at the time), but other years were good too. Bishop Loverde almost wrecked that paradigm when he started sending vocations to bad seminaries, but I guess that due to pressure from his good priests he backed off on that. He also did damage to the program when he decided to allow girl altar boys, for no apparent reason other than to be like the rest of the progressive bishops. However, he gradually modified and adjusted his stance, and was able to level off the downward spike in vocations. His last years there saw moderately good vocations – nothing spectacular, but not bad either. However, the quality of the priests he was turning out was not up to the level under Bishop Keating. There is new hope that Bishop Burbidge will rachet things back up where they had been.

    One thing any bishop can do right away without difficulty is to mandate that parishes establish programs of boy-only altar servers (even if they maintain girl altar boys), to serve at certain special events, masses, functions, or just “the high mass” each week – something distinctive that only boys do. And then invite a different parish group of _boys_ each week to serve with the bishop at a mass. Any bishop can (immediately, and without difficulty) let those parishes that have still boy-only servers that they will be supported full throttle in keeping that tradition.

  31. Thorfinn says:

    I very much appreciate the reminder from lmgilbert on 10 August 2017 at 7:23 PM –

    “This is not what one finds, however, when he looks into the home life of those entering traditional orders today, but rather mass media severely restricted if not missing altogether, the lives of the saints being read, and a home life filled with the good, the true and the beautiful.”

    I have read elsewhere of the importance of reading the lives of the saints – in one item, this was the common denominator of a straw poll of young nuns from very different backgrounds, that all had read the lives of the saints, er, religiously. We have picked up several saints books but I need to get them out on a daily basis. As for the good, true & beautiful, I’m grateful for the helpful books David Clayton has written on the subject, particularly on art & chant in the home (e.g. The Little Oratory with Leila Lawler).

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