From 1965 until 2013, the total number of priests in the United States dropped from 58,632 to 39,600. During the same years, the total number of graduate level seminarians dropped from 8,325 to 3,694. And yet, the number of self-identified Catholics increased from 48.5 million to 78.2 million. Now a large, aging population of priests is entering retirement without enough vocations to replace them.
What has caused this dramatic decrease in ordained ministers to serve the growing number of Catholics, and why aren’t men pursuing the priesthood at the same rate as the growth in the Catholic population? Should Catholics be worried about the future of the church? At a recent Theology and Brew talk at Sea Galley Restaurant in Anchorage, the Anchorage Archdiocese’s newest priest, Father Patrick Brosamer, addressed these questions and shared his insights from his recent seminary experience. Ordained to the priesthood this past June, Father Brosamer is now parochial vicar of St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Church in Anchorage
Father Brosamer suggested a number of possible reasons for the above trends. The first he proposed was that with the advent of widespread contraception, Catholics are having fewer children, which statistically means fewer vocations. He also believes that it is less common for Catholic parents to encourage their children to pursue religious vocations. However pressing these issues may be, Father Brosamer focused his talk on the misunderstanding and misapplication of the Second Vatican Council, and the church’s subsequent recovery from this.
“The biggest event in the Catholic Church in the last 100 years — if not the last 300 years — has been the Second Vatican Council. It was almost the most significant Council since Trent,” he said. “It caused tremendous theological and cultural upheaval within the church. The dust is just beginning to settle.”
While Vatican II has been strongly praised by the past three popes, it has also been the source of much confusion as Catholics grappled with Pope John XXIII’s charge in calling the council to “throw open the windows of the church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”
Given the cultural and social upheaval at the time of the council, many church observers have noted that the spirit of the times also impacted the church profoundly.
According to Father Brosamer, one of the most profound effects was a change in seminary culture and formation. He said this tremendous shift occurred primarily between the 1960s-1970s, and that in more recent years, a shift has moved back in the other direction.
Seminary demographics were one element of this change, he explained. From the colonial days until the early 20th century, the United States relied heavily upon foreign-born priests. Then the U.S. began to produce more vocations among her native sons. Then again in the 1980s, seminary class portraits will reveal that there were many foreign seminarians, particularly from African and Asian countries, Father Brosamer noted. He reflected that this is a reversal from the time when Western European missionaries evangelized these regions.
“Now the seeds which the church planted have grown into mighty oaks which are now producing religious vocations to re-evangelize the West,” he said.
Another demographic shift, he observed, is a higher number of older men with degrees entering seminary.
But the most critical change within seminary life is formation, Father Brosamer said.
Father Brosamer noted that in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II seminary formation suffered both from more lax spiritual discipline and from questionable philosophical and theological formation. He wondered if some of this isn’t exaggerated, but is certain that there is some truth to it.
Father Brosamer reassured his listeners, “The good news is that based on what I have seen and experienced, that has completely or almost completely come to an end, and the seminary formation that is going on is much more traditional and more orthodox than it was.”
In the years following Vatican II theological truths often were not taught as fact and philosophical training was deemphasized, as was discipline. However, Father Brosamer said that in recent decades “it’s begun to swing back toward the center, and that’s a good place to be, because the truth is so often found in between the extremes.”
What accounts for this change? In large part, it’s due to the Program for Priestly Formation, which was first introduced in 1971 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This document has since undergone four revisions. It sets up guidelines for all U.S. seminaries to follow in the four most critical components to priestly formation.
The first pillar of priestly formation is human formation. Father Brosamer explained that this was not given nearly enough attention during the pre-Vatican II days. It refers to the “whole internal mental and spiritual life, how your body and soul come together, and your happiness and well-adjustedness as a human being.”
There has been a strong focus on this aspect of priestly training in recent years.
The next pillar is intellectual training. To truly study and understand theology, seminarians must be rooted in a philosophical grounding, he said. In the years immediately following Vatican II this was deemphasized in many seminaries and seminarians began focusing more on the human sciences such as sociology and psychology. Over the past couple of decades, a renewed attention is being given to philosophy, particularly medieval and Thomistic philosophy.
The pastoral and spiritual are the third and fourth pillars of priestly formation, Father Brosamer said. This enables priests to apply their intellectual knowledge to the care of souls in their charge, as well as grow in their own faith and spirituality through daily Mass attendance, communal prayer, regular confession and pious devotions.
With the balance of all of these four components, Father Brosamer said priests formed in this way “are a lot more tender and pastoral,” as well as grounded in orthodoxy.
According to Father Brosamer, these developments should give Catholics great hope. This hope may clearly be seen in the increase in seminary enrollment over recent years. Since 1995, enrollment has been steadily increasing.
“Seminaries are an exciting place to be right now, because they’re full of life!” Father Brosamer said. “The most fascinating and intelligent people I’ve ever met were in seminary. They love the church and love the faith, and are determined to go out and change the world.”