Priestly calls often follow altar service

Posted on: October 13th, 2023

Priestly calls often follow altar service


October 5, 2023


This week the Benedict XVI Institute for New Evangelization presented a new study: “Meet Our New Priests: 12 Key Findings about the Background, Discernment and Seminary Formation of Canada’s Recent Ordination Classes.”

The structure of the survey was modeled upon the USCCB study of new ordinands which has been conducted since 1998. The Institute’s study examined the two Canadian graduating classes of 2021 and 2022, with an average of 13 ordinands per year, including both diocesan and religious priests. Although this work has been conducted for many years in the United States, this is a novel Canadian project, and one which bares important information related to the direction and formation for our future priests. I encourage reading of the document itself. Here is a summary of a few of the significant findings.

A topic of conversation often raised regarding pastoral planning and parish administration is the priest shortage. Indeed, a tangible sign of the health of any diocese or eparchy is the ability to produce homegrown vocations. An invaluable insight provided by this study is an understanding of just how pronounced the vocation deficit is.

To assist in forecasting a region’s pastoral needs, the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics established a replacement ratio for seminarians to priests (RRSP) which considers the number of seminarians typically needed to replace current active priests.

Using this ratio, the study has established the need for 735 seminarians compared with our current 211. In other words, to maintain our population of priests in Canada, our seminarian population must increase by 3.57 times. We have our work cut out for us in encouraging and nurturing priestly vocations, and this finding is essential for our planning, despite the daunting magnitude of the problem.

Another significant finding addresses the question of what is already working in drawing men to the priesthood. The study identified that 70 per cent of the all the respondents participated in altar serving. This commonality was significantly higher than the next closest ministry of Lector (61 per cent) and substantially higher than those in third place (Catechist, Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion and Music Ministry, all at 26 per cent). The commonality is not simply a question of Canadian context. The American respondents produced a very similar statistic of 73 per cent. The unique experience of serving as an acolyte seems to encourage and support young men in discerning a call to the priesthood.

Perhaps some of the most helpful facets of the study are the questions posed to the participants about the strengths and weaknesses of their formation program. Participants identified the Spiritual Formation Pillar as the strongest (direction, retreats, Eucharist, priestly identity) while Human Formation was considered by the participants to be the weakest, with greater specific need identified as leadership training and practical administration training etc.

Considering the speed at which newly ordained men assume pastorship, our seminarians would benefit from a more focused leadership training program.

Of course, human formation has as its foundation the family, and the report provides some excellent background research into the families of the new ordinands. Half of the respondents had either a priest or religious in the family. Of all the voices that weighed most heavily in their vocational discernment, mothers and fathers were listed just below parish priests — 78 per cent for parish priests, and 74 per cent for mothers and fathers — in response to the question: “Have the following people encouraged you to consider priesthood?”).

Pope St. John Paul II famously stated: “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.” Certainly an important dimension of that world is future vocations to the priesthood, and it would behoove us to make more explicit the connections of the work of our diocesan Marriage and Family and Vocation Offices. 

Although the report has many practical suggestions for increasing and supporting vocations, I would like to leave you with one. As altar serving holds a privileged place in the formation stories of the new ordinands, the creation of altar-serving guilds within parishes could cultivate a culture of fostering vocations. Although not mentioned in the study, I would similarly suggest the re-establishment of the minor orders as provided by the direction of the 1996 Instruction for the Eastern Churches. Serving around the altar in Eastern Catholic Churches has traditionally been reserved to subdeacons and reclaiming the minor orders would provide both a positive witness and “onsite training” for those discerning a future priestly calling. 

The findings in “Meet our New Priests” will go a long way to help to inform and strengthen those involved in priestly formation, which is everyone! It is well worth time and study.

“Meet Our New Priests” was presented to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops plenary assembly Sept. 27     

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