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Vocations then and now: a comparison of the first 10 years and the last 10 years in the Diocese of Madison Print
Guest column
Thursday, Feb. 06, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

Guest ColumnAs many regular readers know well, the Catholic Herald celebrated the recently-concluded Year of Faith by publishing a variety of articles, stories, and information to assist the faithful of the Diocese of Madison in rediscovering and deepening their knowledge and practice of authentic Catholic faith.

One of the periodic features that the Herald offered during the Year of Faith was called “From the Archives,” in which full or partial articles from across the 65-year history of the Madison edition of the paper were reprinted.

In the process of preparing these features, I have spent a good amount of time pouring through the extensive archival records of the paper and have been surprised and fascinated by what I learned about life and activities in the diocese from 1946 to the present day.

Reason for the article

When I was asked to write a column for this special section focusing on vocations, I thought it might be interesting and edifying to dig into the archives once again and make a comparison between life in the Diocese of Madison — with particular emphasis on priestly vocations — between the first 10 years (1946 to 1956) and the last 10 years (2003 to 2013).

All figures cited come from the following sources: the Catholic Herald’s 10th Anniversary Supplement published on April 7, 1956; the relevant year’s Official Catholic Directory and Wisconsin Pastoral Handbook from the Diocese of Madison’s Archives; and statistical information compiled in the Annual General Statistical Questionnaire submitted to the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

Beginning of the diocese

The Diocese of Madison was erected as an independent diocese from sections of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and the Diocese of La Crosse in 1946.

At the foundation of the diocese, the Catholic population totaled 82,315. There were 126 parishes, 122 priests, 427 Sisters, 54 Catholic elementary schools, and five Catholic high schools.

There were 9,418 students enrolled in the elementary schools, 929 students enrolled in the high schools, 3,078 infant baptisms, and 1,397 marriages.

Even though Madison had to establish a new vocations program essentially from scratch after it became an independent diocese, the number of seminarians studying for the Diocese of Madison (along with almost every other aspect of Catholic life in the diocese) experienced rapid and sustained growth in the following decade.

Growth in the first 10 years

In the 10 years between 1946 and 1956 (beginning of year totals):

  • The diocese created six new parishes, bringing the total from 126 to 132.
  • The number of active diocesan priests increased from 122 to 151.
  • There were 40,531 infant baptisms, 6,440 adult baptisms, 8,832 Catholic marriages, and 3,559 “mixed marriages” between Catholics and spouses of other religions.
  • Ten new elementary schools and one new high school were built, bringing the total number of Catholic schools up to 64 and six, respectively.
  • Enrollment in elementary schools increased by 5,163 (or 57.5 percent) to 14,138, and high school enrollment grew by 488 (or 53.6 percent) to 1,397.
  • The Catholic population grew to 117,061 from 83,315, and the diocese ordained 46 new priests.
  • And, by the beginning of 1956, the diocese had 124 minor seminarians and 56 major seminarians studying for the diocesan priesthood.
‘Crisis’ in vocations

For the modern Catholic, these numbers are nothing short of astonishing. But, interestingly enough, these figures were not a cause for much rejoicing in 1956.

Rather, many people across the diocese were seriously concerned about the rate of vocations because the Catholic population (up 40 percent in 10 years) — along with the rapidly expanding parishes and schools that came with it — was growing at a much more rapid pace than the rate of ordinations of new priests (up only eight percent in same 10 years).

In the 1956 anniversary edition of the Herald, Fr. Anthony Young (vocations director at the time) wrote a firm article detailing the urgent need for more priests and religious in the diocese.

At the conclusion of the article, Father Young attempted to calm his readers somewhat with the following assessment:

“Also heartening is the fact that 12 young men will be ordained for the diocese this spring. These newly ordained priests, together with the prospect of some 20 more ordinations in the next two years, should help relieve the present dire shortage of priests in the diocese.”

Growth continued

As a brief aside, it is also interesting to note that the rate of robust growth and vitality of the diocese continued apace for the next two decades.

For example, by 1963 (a year before Holy Name Seminary was built in Madison), there were 278 seminarians, 201 active diocesan priests, 64 religious priests, 1,069 Sisters, 137 parishes, 22,415 total students in Catholic schools, 5,349 infant baptisms, and a total 162,529 Catholics in the Diocese of Madison.

Beginning of last 10 years

A look at the past decade reveals a situation much more familiar to modern Catholics than the previous description of the Church in the 1940s,’ 50s, and ’60s:

In late 2002/early 2003, the Diocese of Madison only had six seminarians, three of whom were scheduled to be ordained in 2003. There were only 100 active diocesan priests, 13 religious priests, 135 parishes (of which only 89 had resident pastors), 47 elementary schools and one high school, 315 religious Sisters, and 3,274 infant baptisms.

These numbers are difficult to read, both on their face and in light of the first decades of life in the diocese.

Significance of the changes

How significant were the changes in these numbers? Let’s make a few simple comparisons to demonstrate how deeply troubling the diocese’s situation was by the year 2002:

  • In 1946, the Diocese of Madison had 122 active diocesan priests serving 82,315 members of the lay faithful across 126 parishes. This is a ratio of one priest for every 675 Catholics.
  • In 1956, the diocese had 163 active diocesan priests serving 120,561 members of the lay faithful across 133 parishes. This is a ratio of one priest for every 740 Catholics.
  • In 1963, the diocese had 201 active diocesan priests serving 162,329 members of the lay faithful across 137 parishes. This is a ratio of one priest for every 807 Catholics.
  • In 2002, the diocese only had 100 active diocesan priests serving 268,396 members of the lay faithful across 135 parishes. This is a ratio of one priest for every 2,684 Catholics.
  • For the diocese in 2002 to have the same ratio of priests-to-laity that it had in 1963, it would have needed 333 active diocesan priests!
  • For the diocese to have the same ratio of major seminarians-to-laity that it had in 1956 (when the vocations director felt that there was a “dire priest shortage”), it would have needed 125 men studying in major seminary . . . instead, it had six.

Having looked at these dramatic changes, it’s important to remember that vocations are not a “numbers game.”

Nobody is suggesting that there were no problems in the Church during these earlier periods simply because our diocese (like most others) had such strong numbers of vocations.

Similarly, it would be foolish to suggest that the Church’s current problems would disappear simply if we packed full our seminaries and convents without careful and authentic discernment.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the precipitous decline in the numbers of priests, Sisters, Brothers, and new vocations did a great deal of undeniable harm to life of the Church.

Changing of the trends

Thankfully for the faithful throughout the Diocese of Madison, the situation of 2002 (and the trends of the preceding decades) began a sudden and firm reversal in 2003 and 2004.

If things had not turned around when they did, it is certain that this diocese would be facing a situation similar to (or perhaps even worse than) the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and others around the nation.

Here’s what I mean: in 1968, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee had 265 parishes, 693 diocesan priests, 513 religious order priests, 3,818 religious Sisters, and 623 seminarians.

By 2020, the archdiocesan pastoral plan estimates that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee will have only 105 to 124 full-time active priests assigned to only 100 parishes, of which 72 will be clustered and 28 will be stand-alone. The implications of these numbers are clear.

Need for strong vocations

Without strong and stable numbers of men and women responding to God’s vocational call to the priesthood and consecrated religious life, the health of any given diocese rapidly deteriorates — schools and parishes are forced to close, marriage and birth rates decline, and Mass attendance and financial support plummets.

It is precisely because of a lack of vocations and these subsequent effects that the Church has withered to a shadow of her former self across the Western World.

Conversely, health and vitality spring up in dioceses that have robust vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

Now, this is certainly not a revelation or new insight; rather, this is a simple truth that has been known and taught since the beginning of the Church.

And, what a truly beautiful thing it is when authentic faith and love for the Church flourish in a diocese and overflow into bearing bountiful fruit in family life and religious vocations!

Present day situation

Happily, by 2006, the Diocese of Madison had 20 seminarians studying for the diocesan priesthood (up from three a mere three years before), and by 2008 it had 30. Currently, at the beginning of 2014, the Diocese of Madison boasts 35 seminarians and 109 active diocesan priests assigned to 113 parishes.

Although the diocese is currently dealing with the consequences of anemic vocation and ordination numbers throughout the decades preceeding 2002, the future actually looks very bright.

The Diocese of Madison projects an impressive 30 ordinations over the next five years, and continues to experience a strong influx of new applications to the vocations program.

Resist complacency

Clearly the Lord God is blessing this diocese with great generosity both in the outstanding number and quality of the men and women entering religious vocations.

However, because God has given the us such a beautiful gift, we must be careful to resist the temptation to complacency or inaction concerning vocations in our diocese.

The need for new, strong, and holy vocations is constant in the Church, and will continue to be so until the end of time.

We must always (all of us — bishops, priests, and lay faithful alike) strive to bring many holy vocations from our families, parishes, and dioceses. There will never be a time when there are “too many” seminarians, novices, priests, Brothers, or Sisters!

Need for financial support

At the same time, there is a critical, urgent need to focus on adequately supporting the formation of our seminarians. The average cost of educating and supporting one seminarian is around $50,000 a year.

When the diocese had only a handful of seminarians, adequate financial support was easily achieved. With the rapidly expanding number of seminarians, however, our fundraising is falling short of the levels we need to support these men who are consecrating themselves to God and offering their whole life in service to the faithful of our diocese.

The St. Joseph Fund (for seminarian education) has continued to decrease. The diocese has contracted with a firm to do a feasibility study to determine a course of action to replenish the St. Joseph Fund.

We must continue to pray

Let us praise and thank the Lord for his generosity in calling such an impressive number of men and women to the priesthood and religious life in our diocese.

Let us continue to pray for many more vocations, and many more holy and fruitful marriages from which these vocations come.

Nico Fassino is the administrative assistant for the Madison Catholic Herald newspaper.