Over 80 million people identify themselves as Catholics in the United States, an increase of over 30 million since 1965.
With more Catholics, there could be an assumption that the United States is overflowing with men trying to become priests.
But that is far from the truth. Instead, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has seen a drastic decline since 1965, from nearly 60,000 to 37,500 in 2015.
1965 is a focal point in the Catholic Church because it signaled the end of the Vatican II Council. The council overhauled many traditional mass rituals and the use of Latin was decreased substantially.
Msgr. Perry contends that many priests that were in the seminary at that time did not like the changes and ended their pursuit of the priesthood.
“I don’t know if that caused a crisis of identity for a lot of guys who were in the seminary thinking of something different,” Msgr. Perry said.
“A lot of them, if you talk to them, they will say they felt like the carpet was pulled out from under them.”
It has been 50 years since the end of Vatican II, but the numbers continue to plummet.
A lifelong commitment to the priesthood may be a factor that keeps American men from pursuing a career in the Catholic clergy.
“I think that’s the society in which we live, where long-term commitments are just simply seen as being too difficult,” says Monsignor Perry Kavookjian, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in northwest Bakersfield.
“Any number of things, like careers, don’t really last a lifetime. I think our society is very mobile, it’s always on the move and I don’t know if that creates a little bit of unrest in people’s hearts.”
Also causing unrest might be the multiple sex scandals that have involved priests in recent years.
“I think to some degree that left an indelible mark in people’s minds about the Catholic priesthood that is going to take a generation or so to erase,” Msgr. Perry says.
But Fr. Bert Mello, who became a priest three years ago as he neared the age of 60, says the scandals don’t affect the men already in the seminary.
“They want people to encounter an intimate experience with Jesus Christ,” Fr. Bert says.
Fr. Bert believes that if men knew what went on in a Catholic seminary, the seminaries would “be filled up in a heartbeat.”
“It’s a different kind of life,” Fr. Bert says.
“It’s a kind of life where you can concentrate on God and you’re studying philosophy, you’re studying theology, you’re studying onotological change, you’re studying metaphysics.”
Fr. Bert embodies the new trend of U.S. priests, men who might have been married and had a career, who later in their life turn to the priesthood as a second career. It makes for an interesting blend of future priests in the seminary.
“There’s a lot of young guys, 20 something, those kind of age range, and then there’s like an extreme, like 60-year-old guys like me and there’s that balance there,” Fr. Bert says.
“It’s kind of funny. There are the 20 something guys, they’re coming in there hardcore, on fire for Christ, those kind of things, and then you’ve got the 50 something year old guys, that are on fire for God but understand life in a different way.”
“It is important to import priests from other places to cover, not 100%, but minimal necessities,” Fr. Miguel says.
Msgr. Perry agrees.
“Without those guys, we would really be in a critical situation.”
While the United States is experiencing a priest shortage, other countries are seeing a priest surplus.
“A lot of third world countries, a lot of men are opting to enter the seminary but they’re so full, they can’t use all those guys,” Msgr. Perry says.
“So we’ve become like mission territory again.”
Fr. Miguel, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Spain, says other countries approach their faith differently than Americans, and that is why he sees the shortage in the U.S.
“I remember when I was a little boy it was a tradition in every single family, they use to pray every single day for vocations in all the families,” Fr. Miguel says.
“This is why, in my family, on my father’s side we have 2 bishops and like 11 cousins that are priests. They use to pray a lot for vocations.”
Msgr. Perry believes vocations would go up in the U.S. if priests could have the option to marry.
“They’re some people who say celibacy is not the reason for the decline,” Msgr. Perry says.
“To make celibacy optional would help. A lot of us feel that the situation can be helped at least, and the strain lifted from clergy right now, by having a broader vision of what it means to be a priest.”
Fr. Bert disagrees.
“Think about it. Number 1, this way I can devote myself completely and totally to Christ,” says Fr. Bert.
Fr. Miguel sides with Fr. Bert.
“I mean I’m happy in the way I’m living,” says Fr. Miguel.
“When I became to be a priest, I knew the rules, I knew the conditions. You cannot change the tradition from more than 3,000 years.”
Despite the low numbers that lead to increased workloads, all three priests said they are happy being in the priesthood.
“I love what I do and I feel that I have found fulfillment and meaning in my life,” says Msgr. Perry. “I think there is just a great deal of satisfaction and fulfillment in working with people at the most personal level, at the most spiritual level.”
“There’s nothing that’s as awesome as being a priest,” Fr. Bert says. “I love every single aspect of what I am doing. There’s no other lifestyle that I could imagine living than what I’m doing right now. And again if men knew this lifestyle, it’d rock their world how awesome it is.”
Or as Fr. Miguel simply puts it, “I’m happy in the way I’m living.”