A recent in-depth feature article in the American monthly Catholic World Report (July 2005) by journalist Jeff Ziegler examined statistics from the 2003 and 2004 editions of The Official Catholic Directory for each of the United States' 176 Catholic dioceses in order to determine the ratios of seminarians to Catholic population. Ziegler was able to make comparisons between "vocation rich" and "vocation poor" dioceses, while inviting comments from bishops, vocation directors and others involved.
Ziegler's analysis took account of factors like the selection processes in different dioceses, the numbers accepted from other dioceses or overseas, the effects of clerical sex abuse scandals and rapid changes in population. However, these did not substantially affect the likely ingredients of success.
Successful seminaries were linked for the most part with strong, orthodox episcopal leadership, the witness of devout, enthusiastic clergy, focus on the indispensable role of the priest, effective programs in schools and parishes, and spiritual practices such as Eucharistic adoration.
The twelve most successful dioceses are relatively small, all bar one having fewer than 100,000 Catholics, suggesting that smaller size enables the impact of strong leadership to be more directly felt and regular interaction between a bishop and his seminarians to occur.
Topping the list is the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, led by Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. Roughly the size of Australia's Rockhampton or Ballarat dioceses in Catholic population, Lincoln had 35 seminarians in training in 2004 (38 in 2005) - a ratio of one seminarian for 2555 Catholics.
The dozen US dioceses with the highest ratio of seminarians to Catholics in 2004 were, in order, Lincoln, Nebraska; Yakima, Washington; Savannah, Georgia; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Rapid City, South Dakota; Wichita, Kansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Alexandria, Louisiana; Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida; Steubenville, Ohio; Spokane, Washington; and Bismarck, North Dakota.
Of the larger dioceses, Denver, Colorado, with 380,739 Catholics, and led by Archbishop Charles Chaput, had the best ratio, putting it 14th out of 176 with 77 seminarians. To put this in perspective, Denver is about the same size as Perth, Australia's most vocation rich large diocese.
Of the largest US dioceses, Chicago, led by Cardinal Francis George, is by far the most successful with 336 seminarians for its 2.4 million Catholics. On the other hand, Los Angeles, with over four million Catholics, has 77 seminarians.
Officials of vocation-rich dioceses most frequently attribute success to divine grace given in response to prayer. Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken ascribes "most of the vocational awareness to the Eucharistic adoration that has been happening in the diocese for quite a few years. This contributes, I believe, to the awareness of the call." Tulsa vocation promotion and recruitment director Wayne Rziha credits weekly Eucharistic adoration by Serra Club members.
The spiritual witness and active interest of diocesan priests in promoting vocations also play a crucial role. "A good number of our priests see themselves as associate vocation directors," says Yakima Bishop Carlos Sevilla, SJ. "There is no better vocations awareness 'program'," according to Rapid City's vocation director, Father Christensen, "than the witness of faithful, dedicated, and joyful men serving Christ and His Church as a committed priest. We are blessed to have many such men serving the people of western South Dakota."
Bishop Bruskewitz adds that "in the Diocese of Lincoln, as in most other dioceses, there are priests assigned to do vocational work, but for many years, all of the priests of the Lincoln diocese have been required to consider themselves 'vocation directors' and to promote the discovery and encouragement of those young people called by God."
In some vocation-rich dioceses priestly ministry at high schools and colleges has proved to be of decisive importance. "Young, effective priest teachers in Catholic high schools are the most impacting and influential factor in priestly vocations," says Bismarck vocation director Father Thomas Richter.
The cheerful conformity of the priests to the magisterial teachings of the Church, to liturgical correctness, and to traditional Church discipline also plays an important part in the diocesan vocation picture. The website maintained by the Savannah vocation office seeks prospective seminarians who "believe in the truths taught by the Catholic Church," "attend daily Mass or make visits to the Blessed Sacrament," and "frequently make use of the Sacrament of Confession."
The Pensacola-Tallahassee vocation director emphasises, among other factors, "fidelity to the magisterium ... a serious and disciplined dedication to the practice of prayer, true devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Eucharistic Lord, clarity considering the truth of human sexuality, [and] formation in the virtues of chastity, modesty, and the celibate way of life."
Newark, New Jersey, has enjoyed relative success among the larger dioceses and gained an additional 14 seminarians in 2004. Asked which factors have helped make Newark more successful in attracting vocations than other major urban archdioceses, the vocation director replied, "Newark's success to me seems to be leadership, orthodoxy, and vocations as a priority. We've been blessed with two back-to-back strong, unabashed Catholic archbishops, for whom vocations and priesthood are extremely important."
As a final illustration, the Diocese of Boise, Idaho, had 14 seminarians in 2003, 21 in 2004 (for a ranking of 29th) and this year has 29 seminarians, according to vocation director Father Jairo Restrepo, who recalled: "When Bishop Michael Driscoll came to our diocese a few years ago, he demanded that all parishes have adoration before the Holy Sacrament asking for vocations."