The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd

Today is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the Gospel.  It’s also traditionally a time to talk about vocations to the priesthood.  Here are some data to get us started:

U.S. Data[1] 1965 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
Total priests 58,632 59,192 58,909 58,398 57,317 52,124 49,054 45,699 41,399 39,993 38,275
Diocesan priests 35,925 37,272 36,005 35,627 35,052 34,114 32,349 30,607 28,094 27,182 26,265
Religious priests 22,707 21,920 22,904 22,771 22,265 18,010 16,705 15,092 13,305 12,811 12,010
Priestly ordinations 994 805 771 593 533 595 511 442 454 459 494
Parishes 17,637 18,224 18,515 18,794 19,244 19,620 19,331 19,236 18,891 17,958 17,483
Parishes without a resident priest pastor 549 571 702 791 1,051 1,812 2,161 2,843 3,251 3,353 3,496
Catholic population 48.5m 51.0m 54.5m 56.8m 59.5m 62.4m 65.7m 71.7m 74.0m 74.6m 79.7m
Former Catholic adults: 7.5m 8.6m 8.0m 10.3m 17.3m 17.9m 19.1m 26.8m 28.9m


I was ordained in 1972.  Forty-three years later there are 20,000 fewer priests in the U.S. and about 25 million more Catholics (plus about twenty million more former Catholics).  The ratio of diocesan priests to Catholics has gone from a 1970 figure of 1 priest per 862 Catholics to a 2014 ratio of 1 priest to 2,818.  But those aren’t the most worrisome numbers.

Any professional group has to replace itself each generation.  So a key thing to look at is the age-distribution of practitioners.  If you look at the nearest comparable professions, medicine and law, over the past forty years the ratio of young practitioners to older ones does something amazing: in 1970 priests, doctors, and lawyers had roughly similar age-distributions; but by 2010 doctors’ and lawyers’ age-distributions looked about like they did in 1970 (median age rose 3%); but priests were widely-different: the median age of priests rose 31%, from 45 to 59.  In 1970, fewer than 10% of priests were over age 65; now, 40% are.[2]

Simply put, the church in the U.S. is not replacing its priests at nearly the rate it needs to.  Why?  Well, it seems that a major factor in young people pursuing a religious vocation (priest or sister) is whether or not they receive encouragement from family and friends.  Now look at the chart on the right:  69% of adult Catholics would not encourage a young person to pursue priesthood or religious life.[3]  What would happen to the health of a society that discouraged its young people from becoming physicians?

So there are the data.  More, from a more personal angle, next week.  Until next week, peace.

A request: If you’ve been using the notebook to record what you hear from God at Mass and would like to help others to get started, I invite you to send me your jottings; I’ll publish some as examples (without names attached, of course).  You can drop off notes to me at the parish office, or e-mail to



[1] Source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA):

[2] Source: Gaultier, Peri, and Ficter, Same Call, Different Men. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012.

[3] Source: CARA  research blog: 2011/04/spotlight-on-vocations-interested-and.html