The following appeared in a recent issue of the National Catholic Reporter: According to a new study, the current generation of recently ordained priests is older and more culturally diverse than 15 years earlier.
The major theological influence on newer priests’ lives was Pope John Paul II. German Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, who easily ranked at the top in a similar survey 15 years earlier, dropped to a distant tie for third in the new survey.
The study, “Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years,” was written by sociologist Dean R. Hoge of The Catholic University of America’s Life Cycle Institute and published in September by the seminary department of the National Catholic Educational Association.
Hoge’s findings were based on a 2005 survey to which 1,000 U.S. priests ordained between 1996 and 2000 responded. Many of the questions replicated a similar study Hoge conducted in 1990 with 1,500 priests ordained between 1981 and 1985.
The new 182-page study includes numerous comparisons with the 1990 findings and commentaries on the findings by six experts in seminary formation and church leadership.
Hoge found that in the 15 years since his earlier study the average age of priests ordained five to nine years had increased more than seven years -- from 34.1 years to 42.6 for diocesan priests and from 36.8 years to 44.2 for priests in religious orders.
Reflecting the growing priest shortage, 54 percent of the diocesan priests surveyed in 2005 were already pastors of parishes -- more than double the 23 percent who had already become pastors in the 1990 study. Of diocesan priests who were pastors in the 2005 study, more than three-fourths had been given their first pastorate within the first five years after ordination, and more than one-third were already responsible for two or more parishes.
“Seminary education should prepare men to become pastors in a short time,” the study said.
More than half the diocesan priests surveyed and two-thirds of the religious priests said they could converse in at least one language besides English. Forty percent of diocesan priests and 55 percent of religious priests said they could speak Spanish. Italian and French came in second and third among foreign languages spoken.
One-sixth of the diocesan priests and one-fourth of those in religious orders said they were born outside the United States. About half of those born abroad came from Vietnam, Mexico or the Philippines.
About one-third of those studied came from Irish or Germanic ethnic background, but the group showed greater racial and ethnic diversity than was found in the 1990 study.
Reflecting the changing nature of seminary formation, in 1990 more than half the priests surveyed said they had been in a college seminary program; in 2005 only about one-third had entered the seminary in their college years. Of those surveyed in 2005, just under half had participated in a post-college pre-theology program before they began their theological studies; in the 1990 study only about one-fifth had done so.
The 1990 study did not ask about Internet use. In the 2005 study, the two Internet sites ranked most useful for ministry were the official Web sites of the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- www.vatican.va and www.usccb.org. Ranked third was www.ewtn.com, the Web site of the Eternal Word Television Network.
In both studies, recently ordained priests most frequently cited America, a New York-based national Catholic magazine, as one of the periodicals that had the most influence on them. In the 1990 study the next four, in order, were National Catholic Reporter, The Priest, Origins and Church. In the 2005 study the next four were The Priest, National Catholic Register, First Things and Origins.
In 1990, 18 percent of those surveyed said Rahner’s writings were among those that had the most influence on their priesthood. Pope John Paul came in seventh, cited by just over 3 percent of those surveyed.
In 2005, 21 percent of those surveyed listed Pope John Paul as one of the most influential writers in their lives as priests and only 4 percent listed Rahner.
Hoge reported that a series of questions in the 2005 study again confirmed a shift among more recently ordained priests to more of a “cultic model” of priesthood -- the notion of a man “set apart whose job is providing the sacraments, teaching the Catholic church’s doctrine and being a model of faith and devotion” -- and away from the “servant-leader model,” which stresses collaboration with the community, serving the members and eliciting their gifts.
For example, only 63 percent of the diocesan priests studied in 1990 agreed somewhat or strongly that ordination gives a priest a “new status ... essentially different from the laity.” In 2005, 89 percent of diocesan priests agreed with that statement.
In both 1990 and 2005, priests in religious orders tended to identify with the servant-leader model more than diocesan priests did.
Hoge reported that morale was high among the recently ordained priests -- nine-tenths of them said if they had to make the choice anew they would enter the priesthood again -- and those who identified more closely with the cultic model tended to be happier about their priesthood.
In 1990, 30 percent of the diocesan priests studied and 55 percent of those in religious orders had earned at least one additional graduate degree within the first few years after ordination. In the 2005 study, only 21 percent of diocesan priests and 34 percent of those in religious orders had earned another degree after ordination.
The study also devoted considerable space to what recently ordained men thought of their seminary formation, their experiences in their first pastoral assignment, their relations with coworkers and other priests, and the quality of opportunities for ongoing formation after ordination.