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Fr. Jorge Torres: Vocations in the United States

Mar 25, 2024

The mission of the Secretariat on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations and Serra go hand in hand. It’s closer than any one of us even recognizes at times.

One of the goals is to increase multicultural vocations, and we work with deacons and priests from various ethnicities.

In the ’60s, we were at our peak, not just for seminary enrollment, but this was also true for consecrated life. A lot of times, people say, “It’s not the way it used to be. We no longer have a priest as a librarian” — you know, things that today we would never think of — “We no longer have a priest as a coach to the basketball team.” Back then, the bishops were just trying to figure out what to do with all of them. 

There are no atheists in a foxhole, you know? We had the World War. People prayed, and they felt a call to the priesthood. Gradually, that tapered off. 

Right now, the line is holding steady. Could it be higher? For sure. But we’re holding steady. There are challenges, but we also have the theological virtue of hope. Most of the seminarians are in theology, 89% of them. A lot of the dioceses and even religious communities are moving towards accepting those who have gone through college already. They say it’s more life experience, and even some religious communities are now saying, not just college, but we need to see that you have worked, paid your bills, gotten an education, all of these various things. 

There are lots of schools of thought on this subject. I speak with Father Kelly, the president of the National Association of Catholic Seminaries. Although he did not attend a college seminary, he is an incredible advocate for it, believing that someone who is 17 and ready to give his life to the Lord should have the opportunity. He often tells people, “I am not a product of this system, but I work within it now, and I see the beauty of it. I see the beauty of being able to go to chapel on a Friday night instead of, you know, going to the local fraternity party.”

One of the changes we implemented last year, spearheaded by Father Luke, involves our collaboration with CARA, who conducts studies about priestly and religious vocations. They now provide us with projections, including potential trends with a plus or minus margin. For college programs, which comprise 4% of all seminarians nationwide, the trend is expected to remain relatively stable, fluctuating by plus or minus one until 2028.

CARA projects that Hispanic representation, which is currently at 17%, will gradually increase to nearly 30% in the coming years as their numbers continue to grow. This mirrors trends seen in various sectors, such as the military. People find a way to pursue what they need, leading to a reflection of the Church’s current demographics. The rise in Hispanic representation means that priests from diverse backgrounds will be more common, potentially fostering stronger connections between clergy and congregations.

At a recent meeting of the National Association of Catholic Theological Schools, we discussed the importance of cultural diversity within seminaries. This dialogue stemmed from fruitful discussions initiated by Bishop Bo at a previous gathering. Understanding and embracing cultural differences enriches our communal experience and strengthens our ability to care for one another.

Moving on to ethnic distribution of ordinations, we observe fluctuations but overall stability. This is a blessing considering the challenges faced by other developed countries. We should be grateful for this trend, acknowledging those who respond to their calling with a resounding “Yes!”

I’ve always loved science and studied microbiology before joining my community. Faith and reason, science and religion, they go together. I was here at St. John Vianney Seminary. For those of you who don’t know, I’m a priest of the diocese of Orlando. I went to school here at St. John Vianney, and I still remember in 1998 or so when St. John Paul II released Fides et Ratio, faith and reason. Back then, Father Nunan, now my Bishop, Bishop Nunan, called a conference and said we need to discuss this document, that faith and reason go together.

When they do the studies about people leaving the faith, we always say it happens in college or adulthood. The challenge is that at times, it’s happening in third and fourth grade. And the reason is because they’re seeing what the church teaches and what the world is saying, and they’re thinking that what they hear in Church is a fable, and what they learn in school is scientific. It’s so important to teach children that faith and reason go together, and to lead by example. They begin to say, “This person is coming to church. If they’re kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, what is it that they know?”

Years ago, priests were not the most encouraging when it came to vocations, 63% of those in a recent ordination class said that a priest encouraged them. That was not the case some years ago. And so, you know, the bishops discussed it and NCDVD developed a way to train priests in how to encourage. And so that’s a huge step. But people still get discouraged by family, friends and coworkers when they’re thinking about a priestly or religious vocation. It happens.

It’s funny, nobody is more upset about celibacy or chastity, then the people who don’t live iIt’s like they’re concerned that it’s contagious. So, you know, I would walk into the supermarket with my Roman collar to get some milk, and people are like, “Oh, he’s here, what could happen?” It’s forcing everybody, including myself, to keep my eyes in heaven because the priest, the consecrated male and female, they’re living here as the way we’re going to live in heaven.

Our job is not to convince people to become priests and religious, just invite people to see, to experience. It’s affirming to see a significant percentage of priests and religious citing encouragement from priests as a motivating factor. This reflects a positive shift, as clergy members are increasingly trained to provide support and guidance to potential candidates. 

However, there are also sources of discouragement, often stemming from familial or societal pressures. Nonetheless, it’s essential to remain steadfast in our commitment to vocation promotion.

As we reflect on the journey towards priesthood or consecrated life, it’s crucial to remember that invitations can have profound impacts. 

Thank you all for who you are.

~Fr. Jorge Torres, Executive Director, CCLV
January 19, 2024, Serra Rally Miami