Report: Decline in Vocations to the Priesthood is Worse Where Priests Serve Larger Flocks

The decline in the number of priests, seminarians, and new vocations to the priesthood in the United States appears to be more pronounced in parishes where priests serve more parishioners, according to a report commissioned by the organization Vocation Ministry.

Vocation Ministry aims to train and encourage priests, educators, and the Catholic laity to support and expand vocations programs in parishes and schools. It has held over 135 workshops in more than 50 dioceses.

The study found that there are fewer new vocations in large dioceses where priests do not have a chance to get to know their parishioners and encourage budding vocations. The report’s authors point out that their findings should be taken into account when considering merging Catholic parishes.

The organization’s newly released 40-page report, “Creating a Culture of Vocations,” provides an analysis of vocations trends and makes recommendations on how to improve the ability of parishes and dioceses to foster vocations to the priesthood.

From 2014 to 2021, the report finds, there was a 9% decrease in active diocesan priests, a 14% decrease in active religious priests, a 22% decline in the number of seminarians, and a 24% decline in total priestly ordinations per year.


Only 30 of 175 dioceses ordained an average number of priests at or above replacement level over the five years from 2016 to 2021, according to the report. Dioceses in which the retirement of many priests is imminent may need to ordain two, three, or more priests to replace retiring or dying clergy.

Smaller parishes tied to more vocations

The Vocation Ministry report separated dioceses by population into four tiers, numbered from 1 to 4. Tier 1 dioceses had more than 750,000 Catholics; tier 2 dioceses had 350,000 to 750,000 Catholics; tier 3 dioceses had 100,000 to 350,000 Catholics; and tier 4 dioceses had fewer than 100,000 Catholics.

The tier 4 dioceses with a small Catholic population had the largest ratio of priests to parishioners — and also the best vocation rate. The dioceses with the largest Catholic populations fared the worst, with the lowest ratio of priests to parishioners and the worst vocation rate.

Given that about 70% of priests say their parish priest was the most influential on their vocation and did the most to cultivate their call to the priesthood, the report argues, more priests per parishioner tends to mean more vocations.

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“I was most surprised that we were able to find such strong correlations between how many parishioners each active priest serves and ordinations,” Rhonda Gruenewald, founder of the Houston, Texas-based nonprofit Vocation Ministry, told CNA Feb. 27. “We actually found the proof to what many suspected: If a priest is placed in a position where he serves 3,000 families, it is difficult for him to build relationships and make time to invite men to discern the priesthood and mentor them.”

“Of course this makes sense, but now we can objectively show that dioceses that have priests serving a high number of parishioners have fewer ordinations,” she said.

For Gruenewald, this means consolidation of parishes can accelerate a shortage in vocations, as priests are forced to serve more parishioners.

The report draws upon seminarian and ordination data from the Official Catholic Directory, starting in 2015, and verifies these numbers with vocations directors. Its analysis draws from interviews with priests, vocations directors, and seminarians.

The Vocation Ministry report emphasizes another key data point about prospective priests: About 75% of newly ordained priests said their call to the priesthood first came before age 18.


“This is when they are in catechism class, the parochial school, youth choir, serving at the altar, and receiving the sacraments,” Gruenewald said. She emphasized the need to support young people in discerning a vocation whenever they hear it.

“This should be a wake-up call for bishops, priests, and laity. They do not have to accept this decline,” Gruenewald told CNA. “We have seen the number of seminarians increase dramatically when dioceses are intentional about engaging their priests and laity for vocations.”

Fostering vocations: a way forward

The Vocation Ministry report makes recommendations for bishops, vocations offices, and all Catholic laity.

Grunewald told CNA the Vocation Ministry organization has helped improve vocation numbers, especially in the dioceses of Peoria, Illinois; Ogdensburg, New York; Stockton, California; and Lansing, Michigan.

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The report offers a few concrete suggestions:

  • It questions the rapid turnover rate among dioceses’ vocations directors, who hold that role on average for only three years.

  • It suggests that the “sharpest, most capable priests” should not necessarily be assigned to large parishes, where they can become exhausted and less able to foster vocations.

  • Families should participate in a parish-based vocations ministry, while religious education programs for children and teens should cultivate “hearts for Christ.” Young men must receive “a consistent and encouraging message” about vocation discernment, the report says.

  • Priests should be healthy, holy, and focused, taking the fostering of vocations seriously “throughout parish life.” With the help of other Catholics, they should avoid the dangers of being overworked and make time to focus on sources of vocations in young adult ministries, altar service, and other areas.

  • Bishops, the report recommends, should be holy, inspirational, and trusted by their priests and seminarians.

Among the report’s sources is the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), based at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Father Thomas Gaunt, SJ, executive director at CARA, told CNA he agreed with the report’s focus on the importance of a relationship with a priest and of parish activities to encourage and foster vocations.

“I think that’s well-grounded and very important. Vocations are inspired by relationships,” Gaunt said.

He cited a saying popular among Jesuits: “We don’t have Jesuits who are inspired to become a Jesuit because of the president of the school. But we have a lot who were inspired by their English teacher.”

However, he questioned some of the report’s methodology. He voiced “some concern” about the usefulness of the population statistics in the report, given the mobility of Catholics.

“Where there’s a growing population doesn’t necessarily indicate that the Church is any more successful. It just means there are more jobs. Or if there’s a diminishing population, it’s not that the Church is less successful. There are fewer economic opportunities,” Gaunt said.

The bishops and pastors of the Northeast and Midwest face “a very different set of daily issues” than those in the South and West, he said. The former are “maintaining huge facilities where there’s not as big of a Catholic population” while the latter face a situation of such growth that “no matter how many more parking spaces you build, you still have people who can’t get into church.”

“Those are big factors that go on that really impact the measure they use. In these items, take it with a grain of salt. They’re not trying to address those impacts,” he said.

Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.