Sunday, June 22, 2014


The chart above concerns the Jesuits and their vocations from 1910 to 2010. As you will note, there are more vocations today than in 1910.

I think this chart could be indicative of vocations for the priesthood across the board. More than likely there are way more vocations today compared to 1910. But what happened in that period beginning around 1920 and peaking in 1965 with a noticeable decline to what is the case today?


The peak in vocations begins its dramatic rise coinciding with World Wars of unprecedented proportions and continuing with the Korean conflict and the Vietnam war.

In fact, during the time of the draft in this country as it concerns Vietnam, there was a tremendous spike in the number of men studying for the priesthood coinciding with the dates of 1966 through 1972. After the draft in the USA was eliminated in 1972 and the war came to a conclusion, so too was there a dramatic drop in the number of seminarians in this country.

For example, my seminary, St. Mary's in Baltimore Maryland had so many seminarians, up to 400 by 1970 that it had to rent a nearby Sisters of Mercy facility to house them all. By 1974 this number was down to about 200 and by 1976 when I entered we had 160 seminarians, 60 alone in my class. In my class by the time we were ordained we were down to 23! Today with deaths and those who left the priesthood, we have only 8 left! YIKES.

It appears that the spike in vocations can be traced to two phenomenon during war time. Men entered the seminary to escape military service! Or men entered the seminary because the threat of war and death created a renewed interest in religious life and serving the Church. You pick!


Bernard Fischer said...

There are also way more Catholics today than 1910. I thought I read someplace that the number of Catholics / priest is similar now to 100 years ago but can't find it. It may be buried in CARAs website.

But let's pray that the current uptick in vocations continues!

Joseph Johnson said...

Yes, but because there are more Catholics in the world today, there are less priests per capita.

I agree, though, about the rise in vocations due to the wars. The chart makes it look like many entered seminary after the First World War (about 1920). This would suggest that many may have actually served and witnessed firsthand the horrors of war. This may have been a life-changing experience which helped lead them to the seminary.

Anonymous said...

It is an interesting proposition that the draft and Vietnam war had some impact on vocations numbers, however using a control population to test this theory would be necessary. I would look at the numbers of religious women who were not subject to the draft. Their numbers also exploded in the same time period and then declined after 1965. I suspect the increase before 1965 in religious vocations abd the declines after 1965 were due to other factors than the wars and draft. But the reasons why do merit further investigation. And the individuals who made these decisions are largely still with us, so perhaps a study is in order.

George said...

Population of the United States

US Census Bureau

1910 92,228,496

2010 308.4 million

1910 12,470,0000 Pew Research

2013 70,000,000 Official Catholic Directory US Bishops

Don't overlook that some priests served as military chaplains.

Paolo Perspicacitas said...

I suspect that the societal upheavals precipitated by the devastation of World War I, most especially the collective desire to push the limits of social acceptability (e.g., dramatically loosened changes in 1920s fashion, social morés, and class structure), created a countervailing need for certainty, including spiritual life. Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain propitiously captured that zeitgeist and directed the imagination of many self-examining folks toward religious life.

Of course, all of this is pure speculation on my part since I lack first hand experience of that time period. However, I have noticed the ubiquitousness of Thomas Merton's influence among fellow discerners today.

So, I think the cause of blossoming vocations was not the fear of war, but the search for peace.

-- Paolo P.

George said...

70,000,000 -2013
are the respective Catholic population for those years.

Anonymous said...

From 1990 to 2000 the Legion of Christ experienced a huge boom in vocations despite there not being any major wars, draft, and other socio-political upheavals.

This was before their scandals erupted - the men who joined did so mostly out of fervor to serve the Church in a dynamic, orthodox congregation that had a distinct "can do" attitude (if perhaps naïve and overly macho).

Still, having followed them for some time I note that dozens of priests who are now serving in dioceses around the country began their discernment process at one of the LC "come and see" weekends.

So I think the image we have of the priesthood, the image we promote of ministry, how we 'sell' it...matters. Men will give up wealth, freedom, pleasure... if they feel the sacrifice of these good things is worth it for a greater good. The LCs talked up this greater good (new evangelization, convert the world...) all the time.

Now granted, they had problems (who doesn't?) and they've suffered a sort of implosion since the scandals of their founder erupted. But the point remains.... for a while they were booming with vocations. And they had cassocks, sang Gregorian chant, had traditional piety (rosary, adoration) and yet were also on the cutting edge media wise and working with youth and latinos.