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Seminarians fewer, older, diocese-bound.

ST. PAUL, Minn.--Men preparing for priesthood in the United States are not only fewer and older than seminarians of previous decades. They also assess their academic abilities more highly than do their teachers.

These are just two among many findings in a new study conducted by the National Catholic Educational Association and funded by The Lilly Endowment Inc. Survey results are published in the NCEA's booklet Seminarians in the Nineties: A National Study of Seminarians in Theology, by Eugene E. Hemrick and James J. Walsh.

The report is based on 901 responses to questionnaires sent to 2,921 seminarians, 86 percent of whom are first to fourth-year theology students.

The authors attribute the low response rate (31 percent) to seminarians having to supply 50 cents in postage to return the questionnaire, to "greater suspicion" than in earlier years resulting from "negative media reports on seminarians," and to inclusion of many open-ended questions requiring that respondents reply in their own words.

Of the seminarians who responded, 80 percent are studying for a diocese, 20 percent for religious life. In a commentary included in the report, Franciscan Sr. Katarina Schuth notes that the number of diocesan candidates decreased 39 percent between 1969 and 1984, then 3 percent from 1984 to 1993. However, religious candidates declined 53 percent from 1969 to 1984, followed by 35 percent from 1984 to 1993, indicating the number of religious priests will drop decisively in the next decade.

Schuth holds an endowed chair for social scientific study of religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, part of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

The report shows that today's seminarians, like those of the past, tend to come from stable Catholic families and from Anglo-European backgrounds. Twenty-one percent are of Irish descent and 19 percent of German, Austrian, Dutch or Swiss heritage. Six percent come from Hispanic families; only one percent are of African-American descent. "While this should be a source of pride" to the European groups, "it is also a source of alarm," observes Msgr. Robert J. Wister of Seton Hall University School of Theology, South Orange, N.J. "Catholics of Asian background are well represented in seminaries in proportion to their numbers," he says, but Latinos and African-Americans are not.

In his commentary, included in the study, Wister notes that the increasingly multiethnic, multiracial church in America is predicted to become more than half Latino during the first half of the 21st Century. Specific efforts to nourish vocations among new immigrants from African-Americans must be increased," he contends.

Academically, 92 percent of seminarians evaluated themselves as good or excellent at comprehending, 89 percent as good or excellent in analyzing, 91 percent as good or excellent at evaluating and 93 percent as good or excellent at applying knowledge. They expressed less confidence in their ability to memorize (75 percent said they were good or excellent), to synthesize (85 percent) and to think abstractly (76 percent).

"In marked contrast," notes, Schuth, "faculty rated less than 30 percent [of students] as somewhat or far above average on any of these cognitive skills." The faculty assessments come from the NCEA Seminary Department's 1993 study, Readiness for Theological Studies: A Study of Faculty Perceptions on the Readiness of Seminarians, by Hemrick and Wister.

"The scales used in the surveys of students and faculty were different," notes Schuth, "but even if we were to add faculty who said students were average, the discrepancy between faculty and student perceptions is enormous"

Nevertheless, the seminarians' median level of academic achievement is a 3.5 or B-plus average. Fifty-five percent of them attained that level. Nineteen percent were 4.0 or A students, 20 percent 3.0 or B students, and 5 percent averaged C-plus or C grades.

More positive findings occur in seminarian's views of church-related issues. Ninety-four percent of them say they are comfortable with the church's social justice teachings, 89 percent with wearing the Roman collar or religious habit, 86 percent with church governance, 84 percent with the church's moral teachings and 84 percent with "nonordained persons fulfilling responsibilities once reserved solely to the ordained."

The report notes that "religious are significantly less comfortable than diocesan seminarians with the social justice teaching of the church, its governance, its moral teachings and wearing symbols of affiliation."

The seminarians further said they have no problem working with laity (99 percent), with sisters (92 percent), with permanent deacon coworkers (92 percent) and with people of other cultures (91 percent). However, Schuth says that in a 1991 study, more than 40 percent of sisters said they find working with clergy difficult.

Only six percent of seminarians in the NCEA study agreed that "ecumenism is a waste of time since we will never come to an agreement on essential doctrines," and only 10 percent said they were unconcerned about Catholic immigrants being evangelized by other denominations.

Fifty-nine percent of the seminarians said the liturgy was "the center of my formation,' and 33 percent said it plays a major but not central role.

Asked what they consider the great challenge facing the church in the next five years, most seminarians identified the need to evangelize. They also "see the church being challenged by women who want a larger and more accepted role," the study reports.

Asked the greatest shortcoming in priestly ministry today, the respondents gave a wide range of answers, primarily the need for a better priestly identity and deeper spirituality. Among other concerns were "a healthier respect for sexuality, better education and better living conditions."
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Title Annotation:includes related article; 'Seminarians in the Nineties' survey
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 24, 1993
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