Since the '70s, the number of priests in the United States and Canada has dramatically decreased, while the number of Catholics has grown. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that in 1965, 549 U.S. parishes did not have a resident priest pastor. By 2010, that number had increased to 3,496. Nevertheless, a recent story from NPR highlights some good news for U.S. Catholics. “At U.S. Seminaries, A Rise In Millennials Answering God's Call” reports an increase in the number of younger men entering Catholic seminaries across the country. While the numbers in the NPR story do not suggest that the priest shortage will soon be over, they do describe the bucking of a trend.
For seminary leaders, keeping track of trends is critical. That's why In Trust has such love for dashboards and critical indicators. It's why we point to the data pouring out of the Association of Theological Schools. It's why we encourage new board members to dig into these numbers early in their tenure.
Leaders of Protestant schools might dismiss news of more priesthood candidates as inconsequential, but this news serves as a reminder for all seminary leaders that the trajectory of the past is not always an indicator of the future.
For years, seminaries have been watching their student bodies age. More married students. More second-career students. Fewer students stepping straight from college to seminary. If a generation of Catholics is suddenly looking for ways to engage in ministry, responding to a call, what might this tell us about broader trends?
It's a complicated question, because while the Catholic Church is in need of pastors, Protestants have too many. So what this story means — if anything — for the long term is unclear. Catholic leaders will certainly be asking this new group of students what it was that led them to seminary. What should non-Catholic leaders be asking?