Background of new US priests shows importance of 'culture of vocations'

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A young man during his ordination ceremony. Credit: Mazur

The 480 men in the U.S. ordination class of 2011 tend to be younger and come from a variety of backgrounds. Their numbers include a deaf man, refugees from Vietnam, grandfathers and ministers who converted from other Christian churches.

Those to be ordained this year range in age from 25 to 63, with an average age of 34. More than half are between 25 and 34 and 80 percent are under age 40, the U.S. bishops’ conference reports.

A study of the seminarians’ origins shows “the importance of lifelong formation and engagement in the Catholic faith,” said Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ committee on clergy and vocations.

He noted that 71 percent of the ordination class said they served as altar boys.

“This seems to indicate that the involvement of youth in the Church’s activities, especially the liturgy, has a positive impact for their choice of a vocation,” the archbishop said.

Members of the ordination class were more likely to have attended Catholic elementary and high school. About 67 percent attended a Catholic college, compared to seven percent of the adult Catholic population, a study from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate said.

“When considering the limited resources we have to promote vocations to the priesthood, the campus ministry programs at Catholic and public institutions of higher education deserve special consideration,” said Fr. Shawn McKnight, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ secretariat on clergy and vocations.

He said Catholics must seek new ways to extend “the culture of vocations” in schools and parishes, giving special consideration to campus ministry programs in Catholic and public higher education institutions.

Most prospective priests were raised Catholic from birth, but eight percent of the ordination class converted to Catholicism as adults. Their numbers include several former Protestant ministers.

Warren Tanghe, a prospective Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was an Anglican priest who converted last year. John Johnson, an Episcopal priest for 21 years, will be ordained for the Louisville archdiocese. Jeffrey Henry of the Diocese of Sacramento, California was a Lutheran minister.

Ordinand Scott Caton, 49, a husband and father of six, was a minister in Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches and also served as a Baptist minister. He became a Catholic in 2002.

Almost one in 10 future priests spent time in military service.

Dennis Suglia of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York commanded a 75-man U.S. Marine Corps unit overseas. David Severson of the Diocese of Helena, Montana served in the Army in combat during the first Gulf War.

Joseph Minh Nguyen, who will be ordained for the Divine Word Missionaries in Chicago, escaped from Vietnam by boat and spent four years in an Indonesian refugee camp. Anthony Bui of the Diocese of San Bernardino in California also escaped from Vietnam by boat to a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Almost every future priest reported full time work experience before entering seminary. Some are former academics, like Charles Okjeke of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He taught medical microbiology at the University of Nigeria and did postdoctoral research at universities in Germany, Japan and the U.S.

Eric Ayers of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia was a professional gardener at Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello house, while Donald Bedore of the Diocese of Dodge City, Kansas managed a grocery store meat department. Radmar Jao, a prospective Jesuit priest, was a working actor in Los Angeles.

Former attorneys, teachers and investment bankers are also among the new priests.

In a rare event, brothers Matt and Terrence Coonan will both be ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana on June 11.

Four in five ordinands come from families where both parents are Catholic. More than half have more than two siblings and one in three have a relative who is a priest or vowed religious.

Almost seven in 10 men of the ordination class are from a Caucasian background, while 15 percent are Latino and 10 percent are Asian, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Five percent are African-American.

One in five men attended World Youth Day.

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