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What does a typical priest look like?

Most are from traditional Catholic families are not afraid of traditional devotions, according to a new survey

By on Monday, 6 May 2013

Seminarians in New York. A new study paints an interesting picture of the type of men joining the priesthood    CNS

Seminarians in New York. A new study paints an interesting picture of the type of men joining the priesthood CNS

There was an interesting article on Catholic World News for 2nd May. The headline caught my eye: “Typical new priest: 32-year-old cradle Catholic who prays Rosary, takes part in Eucharistic adoration.” Reading down I saw this was a survey of 366 out of 497 men to be ordained in the US this year. The headline itself was uplifting: these are mature men who emerge from Catholic families and who are not embarrassed to take part in traditional devotions. Thank God for them.

There were other significant features to the survey: the overwhelming number (81%) has two Catholic parents; 20% have five or more siblings, 10% have four siblings and 22% have three siblings. 4% have been home-schooled – at a time when less than 2% of US children are educated at home. This – admittedly small – survey indicates that having two Catholic parents undoubtedly makes it easier to develop a vocation. Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis had Catholic fathers and mothers with a strong faith, who thus provided a balanced influence on their sons’ vocations. Again, larger families tend to produce more vocations than smaller ones. Perhaps this is because there are fewer material distractions in larger families, alongside greater opportunities for service? As it happens, I personally know of three priestly vocations from homeschooling families in the US. Again, such families tend to be large, counter-cultural and with a strong Catholic ethos.

The figures also reflect the modern trend for mature men to come forward. In the time of Pope Benedict’s youth, junior seminaries were a common feature in western countries; today it is thought wiser to encourage some experience of adult living before the decision to enter a seminary. 63% of these US ordinands have been to university and 62% have worked fulltime before entering the seminary. Another statistic: 67% had served as altar servers. We are not told if these were in more traditional parishes where girl altar servers are not permitted. I mention this because it has been argued that female altar servers discourage boys from serving, whereas in the past, altar serving has often been the first step to the priesthood. Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, in an interview in the Herald, stated that altar serving had been an important part of his own growth in his vocation to the priesthood.

From an ethnic perspective, the survey seems fairly typical: 67% of these men are white, 15% are Hispanic, 10% are Asian and 5% are African-American. And after decades when traditional Catholic devotions have been seen as old-fashioned and out of place in the post-Vatican II Church, it is also encouraging that 68% of these men regularly prayed the Rosary and 62% regularly participated in Eucharistic adoration before entering the seminary. It has been said that where parishes begin to have Eucharistic Adoration on a regular basis vocations will happen. In a talk I attended in March this year, Fr Alexander Sherbrooke of St Patrick’s, Soho Square, said that when he took over the parish it was the very first thing he initiated.

Some conservative opinion in the Church has poured scorn on World Youth Days, seeing them as an excuse for youthful immorality rather than as an intensive experience of international prayer. Yet 20% of these ordinands have taken part in a World Youth Day and have come away from them obviously richer rather than poorer in their faith. Another figure: 67% were encouraged by their parish priest to consider a vocation. I like the thought that while the media may be dominated by stories of abuse by the few, the fact is that over two-thirds of these young men were influenced for the good by the example of a kindly father-figure – their parish priest.

The last statistic I particularly noted was that 40% of these men are the oldest children in their families. Young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Now Pope Francis, was himself the oldest of five siblings; in addition, he came from a close and devout Catholic family; he had been an altar server; and had earned a chemistry degree before ordination as a Jesuit when in his 30s. Perhaps typical new priests in the US are not so very different from typical older priests in Latin America after all?