Here comes the Class of 2015

Friday 8 May 2015 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Ordination season

It’s time, dear readers, for my annual review of priestly vocations. Let’s look first at where we are and then at where we might soon be.

We have an aging clergy coupled with increasing ministerial demands. If I remember correctly (which is lately getting more difficult for me), our diocesan rules for retirement of a priest were promulgated decades ago. A priest experiencing some impediment that prevents full participation in ministry may request retirement from active ministry at the age of 65 years. (I haven’t fact-checked this because I don’t remember where I filed the document.) Of course, priests suffering from catastrophic illness need to retire earlier. 

Presently, in the Diocese of Fall River, retirement from active ministry becomes an option available to all at the age of 70 years. All bishops, priests, and deacons worldwide are mandated to formally request retirement at the age of 75 years.

I have no access to clergy personnel files; consequently, I have no hard facts on the birth dates of my brother priests. However, as any columnist worth his salt, I do have a source familiar with the situation who prefers to remain anonymous due to the fact that he is not authorized to speak. It’s not me. My source is a priest who recently sat down to figure these things out and sent me the results of his research. I must stress that his information may not be accurate and also that he has a vested interest in the matter.

That being said, we apparently have three pastors who are already over the age of 70 but have chosen not to pursue the option of retirement up to this point. They still have the option available to them, I would presume. Two will reach the age of mandatory retirement in the year 2017 and one in the year 2018.

We have four pastors or maybe five (I told you my source was a little shaky) who will become eligible for optional retirement in the year 2016; three pastors who will turn 70 years of age in the year 2017; two pastors who will celebrate their 70th birthday in the year 2018, and four pastors turning 70 in 2019. If the calculations are correct, it means that 16 or 17 priests will reach retirement age in the next four years. This does not count priests who may need to retire for reasons other than age.

These 17 seasoned priests will be replaced in the next four years by, at best, five newly-ordained priests. These trends apply to dioceses throughout the United States, although priestly vocations worldwide have been experiencing phenomenal growth since 1978. The good news is that there has been a 25 percent increase in priestly vocations in the United States this year over last, so the situation will not be as bad as it could be.

The months of May and June are the traditional time for ordinations to the priesthood. Let’s take a closer look at those going to be ordained to the priesthood this year in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

— The average age of these men is 34 years. Back in the day, it was 24 years. Most have completed college before entering the seminary. In my day, you were sent to a “cloistered” seminary that also happened to be a college. The majority of the Class of 2015 have had full-time work experience before entering the seminary. Way back when, this was rare.

— Almost all of the men ordained in 2015 have siblings (on average, three) and the vast majority come from homes in which both parents are Catholic. They come, therefore, from solid Catholic families.

— Most of these men began considering the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood at the age of 17 years. Some two-thirds of the men participated in vocation discernment programs. They were encouraged to enter the seminary by parish priests, friends, parishioners, or parents (in that order). More than half of the Class of 2015 were discouraged from entering the seminary by friends, family members, parents, co-workers, and a surprising nine percent by priests (in that order).

— Before entering the seminary, these men were involved in parish Liturgical ministries, youth groups, Boy Scouts, campus ministry, and the Knights of Columbus (in that order). For me, it was CYO. I didn’t sign up as altar boy until high school under the mistaken impression that it was a requirement for entering the seminary. It wasn’t.

— Before entering the seminary, these men were also active in youth and young adult retreats, as well as Bible study groups. 

As I see it, these new priests have a deep devotion to Holy Mass. They spend significant time in private prayer, especially Eucharistic Adoration and the Rosary. They are older, more mature, and more experienced. They are knowledgeable of Scripture and tradition. 

A warm welcome, then, to my 595 new brothers in the ordination class of 2015. OK, now what?

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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