How universities can cultivate vocations

How universities can cultivate vocations

By Fr. Vincent J. O’Malley C.M., c

Young people take part in the annual Mass in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas held at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Universities with a strong Catholic culture are associated with sending higher than average numbers of graduates to the seminary.

For years Father Vincent J. O’Malley, C.M. noted that some universities sent men regularly to the seminary while his own institution did not. With a desire to change that, he conducted an extensive study to learn what factors seem to encourage college men to enter the priesthood. We present the results of his study here. While Father O’Malley’s focus was on men and the priesthood, the study’s conclusions are in many ways consistent with findings from studies about both men and women. (See other vocation related studies at It is our hope that this article will continue the conversation about how Catholic colleges and universities and public school Newman Centers can foster a culture of vocations that will benefit not only men’s religious communities but women’s communities and dioceses as well.

UNIVERSITIES, AND CATHOLIC UNIVERSITIES IN PARTICULAR, play a critical role in fostering vocations to the priesthood. A little data sheds light on this reality. For the last 20 years, the number of seminarians nationwide has been increasing slowly but steadily. In spring 2015, the number of ordinands jumped from the previous year’s 477 to 595, a 25 percent increase. Among the 2015 ordinands, 66 percent entered the seminary after having graduated from universities. Among these university-grad ordinands, 45 percent graduated from Catholic universities, which demonstrates a vast over-representation since only 7 percent of Catholic college-age students attend Catholic universities. More than half of the 2015 ordinands graduated from non-Catholic private and state universities. Clearly universities have provided the context in which the most recent ordinands discerned and developed their vocations.

For me these concerns are personal. My Vincentian province sponsors two universities, Niagara University which borders Niagara Falls, New York; and St. John’s University in New York City. Combined, these two institutions have yielded some seminarians for various dioceses and religious communities but none for our own community during the last decade. In fall 2014 my provincial assigned me to investigate what other universities were doing to successfully encourage men to enter the seminary.

How I approached this research    

Before contacting any universities, I sought the advice and insights of experts in the field. I spoke by phone with Brother Paul Bednarczyk, C.S.C., longtime executive director of the National Religious Vocation Conference. I studied documents from the “Summit on Vocations,” that Boston College hosted in June, 2013. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and the Pew Research Center have published numerous data-rich documents about Millennials in general and Catholic Millennials in particular, recent ordinands and religious, and the influences of college life on vocational discernment. These studies provided much information and insight. I also re-read Raymond Hostie’s definitive work, Life and Death of Religious Orders (CARA, 1983), which had provided perspective for me during my years as the province’s vocation director, 1981-1986.

The bulk of my research consisted of in-person interviews at 22 colleges and universities, 15 of them Catholic. The criteria for selecting universities to visit consisted of three categories. First I wanted to visit some with a reputation for producing many vocations. Secondly I wanted to include some that I identified as peer institutions for Niagara University and St. John’s University. And, finally, I chose several universities at random because of their proximity to Vincentian apostolates. At the start of the study I knew little about the 22 schools’ vocation successes except that Franciscan University and Texas A&M had produced many vocations.

The 22 selected schools (see page 18) provided a felicitous cross-section of size, geographical region, and identity. They also were varied in terms of the portion of students who are Catholic.  At each these of 22 universities, I typically spoke with either the vice president for mission or the director of campus ministry and some staff, or the director of the Newman Center and some staff. Oftentimes I followed up campus visits with telephone calls to a community’s vocation director. All of the interviewees received me with great kindness and interest in this project. Before publishing this article, I sent a draft to the principal contact at each university to welcome their feedback and take it into account in the final draft.

What schools with high rates of priest-vocations have in common

Universities in the top quarter of the 22 selected schools send roughly 2-to-11 graduates to the seminary each year. Schools in the second quartile send someone to the seminary almost every year. The lower half of the 22 selected institutions each send someone to the seminary occasionally or rarely. Common denominators among the most successful vocation-producing universities include the following factors.

Enthusiastically Catholic—The top tier Catholic universities or Newman Centers at state universities “publicly proclaim” themselves Catholic. They do not simply “name” themselves Catholic. Franciscan University’s website identifies the institution as “passionately Catholic.” At Texas A&M the Newman Center of St. Mary’s Church posts hand-made student signs which boast, “Aggie Proud, Aggie Catholic.” At the nation’s capital in 1998, I attended the Inauguration Mass for my former student, Father David O’Connell, C.M., now Bishop of Trenton, who declared unabashedly in his homily that he intended “to put the Catholic back into Catholic University of America (CUA).” The University of Notre Dame (ND) is regarded nationwide and beyond as the premier Catholic university in the U.S., although Boston College, CUA and Georgetown may beg to differ. ND intends that approximately 85 percent of its student body and 50 percent of its faculty be Catholics. Mount St. Mary’s University at Emmitsburg, Maryland advertises itself as “proudly and joyfully Catholic.” Banners flying from every lamp post on campus identify the university’s four pillars, the first of which is “Faith.”

At Oklahoma State University, St. Mary’s Parish and Newman Center describes itself as “a distinctive Catholic voice” for the university community. At Auburn University, members of St. Michael’s Parish conduct at the downtown campus an annual Corpus Christi procession complete with a half-dozen torch bearers and four canopy bearers surrounding the priest who carries the monstrance with Eucharist. When the hundreds of believers arrive at the outdoor destination, the faithful kneel in adoration and publicly profess their Catholic faith.

The top tier universities and Newman Centers are very public and pro-active in proclaiming their Catholicity. They make no claim to being “more” Catholic than other Catholic institutions. Most Catholics know that the church extends a big umbrella for all its members. These universities and Newman Centers staunchly and positively assert their Catholic identity. Five of the top six vocation-promoting institutions are Catholic universities. Among these five all but ND are listed in the 27-school 2015 Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College. The guide recommends universities “because of their commitment to a faithful Catholic education.” Among the remaining 10 Catholic universities, none is included in that list.

Another example is this: when dozens of Catholic institutions in 2013 opposed the controversial Health and Human Services mandate, all five of the Catholic top vocation-sending universities took public action: Belmont Abbey, CUA, Franciscan University and ND filed lawsuits against the federal government, and Mount St. Mary’s University at Emmitsburg took out a full page ad in the Washington Post. Among the remaining 10 Catholic universities, none publicly opposed the federal government. Being publicly passionate, proud, and joyful about the Catholic faith emerges as one common denominator for schools which successfully develop vocations. 

(To view the table below in a larger, more crisp form, click here. To download the pdf of it, click here.)

Sunday Mass—The top vocation-producing Catholic universities and Newman Centers successfully promote Sunday Mass attendance. Despite the fact that students oftentimes go home for weekends, many of the top tier universities report that at least one-third of their Catholic students attend Sunday Mass on campus. That figure doubles the national average of 17 percent, which Pew Research identifies as the weekly Sunday Mass attendance rate for Catholic Millennials. At Franciscan University the director of campus ministry claims that on and off campus about 95 percent of the students attend Mass each Sunday. At Texas A&M, the 800-seat church is filled to standing room only capacity for virtually all of the eight Sunday Masses. ND has 30 residence halls. In each hall, the resident priest celebrates Mass each Sunday, usually as a late Sunday night “last chance Mass.” Boston College (BC) celebrates Sunday Mass at six prayer sites with multiple offerings at each site for a total of 15 Sunday Masses. When I commented to my Jesuit interviewee that there seems to be a great demand for Masses, he replied, “It was not always that way. The Jesuits have learned that we must invite the students to Mass.” Regarding vocations the dictum is, “If a young man is not going to Sunday Mass, it’s not likely he will be going to the seminary.”

Vocation panels, discernment groups—The vocationally successful schools present panels on all vocations. They offer panels with representatives from married life, single life, priesthood, diaconate, and religious life. They do not limit panels to the vocation of priesthood. By presenting the theology, spirituality, and personal experiences of all vocations, these institutions simultaneously promote priesthood. Some schools, however, conduct no vocation panels of any kind, which results in missed opportunities to expose young people to this way of life. Raymond Hostie, author of Life and Death of Religious Orders, reminds readers that in the ebb and flow of church history, vocations to married life and priesthood prosper together or suffer together. Faith and spirituality underlie all vocations. When one vocation flourishes, all flourish. A vibrant Catholic family, community or university yields vocations to priesthood.

The top vocation-producing universities also have vocation-discernment groups which meet two or three times each semester for an evening of prayer, pizza, discussion, and discernment.

Presence of FOCUS—Most of the successful vocation-producing universities employ the services of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). The FOCUS teams of young, enthusiastic, evangelical missionaries serve on over 100 university campuses nationwide: 93 large state universities and seven generally small Catholic universities. FOCUS teams bring the faith to millions of students, one-third of whom are unchurched, and who otherwise likely would not hear the teachings of Jesus and the church.

The FOCUS missionaries go where few campus ministers and vocation directors go: the residence halls, hundreds of sporting events, and social gatherings late at night when discussions on deep questions including religion and vocation oftentimes arise. Six of the 22 universities I studied utilize the services of FOCUS. All six are in the top half of the ranking. They are Auburn, Franciscan, the Mount at Emmitsburg, Oklahoma State, Belmont, and Texas A&M.

The physical presence of vocation-promoters—Top performing  schools value immeasurably the physical presence of vocation promoters, be they priests, religious, or committed laity. Physical presence occurs especially in the classroom but also in campus ministry offices and programs, in chaplaincies and moderatorships for sports teams and organizations. Vocation promoters may be found eating lunch in the students’ dining hall or attending student social and service activities. Most religious communities open their house chapel and dining room to faculty, staff, and students. Wherever students are, Jesus instructs his disciples to be and to evangelize (Matt. 28:19).

 Physical presence provides the opportunity for social interaction, personal witness, and meaningful conversations that might lead to discussions about vocation. The 2012 report by the Center for Research in the Apostolate (CARA) “The Influence of College Experiences on Vocations Discernment to Priesthood and Religious Life,” lists 22 factors that influence a young man’s decision to enter the seminary. Spiritual direction (65 percent) tops all other suggested factors, such as Eucharistic Adoration (53 percent), Mass (52 percent), vocation events (42 percent), retreat experiences (36 percent), service programs (25 percent) and quality of homilies (19 percent).

Traditional Catholic spirituality appeals to  many vocation-minded Catholic Millennials. In NRVC’s  2009 study of newer vocations, CARA reported that newer members desire spiritual growth and feel called by a community’s prayer life and its joyful members. CARA indicated that when youth discern a vocation to a particular community, that the community’s ministry is important but less important than prayer and spirituality.

Many youth who wish to dedicate their lives to the church seek a community committed to fidelity to the church and its teachings. This coincides with Hostie’s observation that after the “radical decline” of a major 300-year spirituality, the subsequent third generation of youth will seek a new spirituality rooted in traditional Catholic practice and responding to society’s newest needs.
Encompassed in this context of fidelity to the church and community life, CARA reports that today’s youth value daily Eucharist, Eucharistic adoration, Divine Office, and Marian and other devotions. My study would add to that list Praise and Worship evenings and Taizé prayer. Exemplifying CARA’s research, 70 percent of the ordination class of 2015 report that they regularly pray the rosary and participate in adoration. Frequent confession also exemplifies the desire for traditional Catholic spirituality. Among the 22 universities considered herein, all but a handful offer confession multiple times weekly.

A secluded yet accessible Marian grotto and multiple prayer sites can be found at the most successful seminarian-producing universities. Franciscan has a traditional manger scene, Portiuncula Chapel, outdoor Stations of the Cross, Tomb of the Unborn Child, and chapels in two of its dorms. Notre Dame has its world-renowned Lourdes Grotto and chapels in all 30 dorms. CUA welcomes millions of visitors and countless students to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception with its dozens of side altars, shrine rooms, and crypt chapel. The Mount at Emmitsburg annually receives hundreds of thousands of visitors including students at its National Lourdes Grotto, and many students pray in the half dozen chapels across campus. Texas A&M provides an outdoor Marian grotto and an indoor adoration chapel. At Auburn some students pray daily in the parish’s adoration chapel, and every Monday evening they gather in a larger room, where 50-100 students join in Eucharistic adoration. At Villanova, a core group of students gathers daily to pray in its adoration chapel. Almost all of the 15 Catholic institutions have Marian grottos and adoration chapels, or dedicated adoration hours. Multiple chapels and other sacred spaces are situated throughout most of these 15 institutions. 

The presence of a Marian grotto, along with multiple prayer sites on campus, are factors associated with a larger number of men who go to seminary. Pictured here is the University of Notre Dame grotto. Photo by  Matt Cashore / University of Notre Dame.

Related but not essential factors for promoting vocations.    

Service—In my conversations about factors which promote vocations, almost none of the interviewees mentioned service. Eventually, I introduced the topic. Every interviewee waxed eloquently about service performed by their students and priesthood candidates. Service has become de rigeur for many university students. Data about the level of volunteering among college students in general ranges from 30 to 47 percent of them performing service, with specialized groups of college students showing even higher volunteer rates.

CARA studies of recent ordinands show 70 percent participation rates in helping nonprofit organizations. The seminarian rate may be higher than average, but service itself provides no distinctive correlation for vocational interest. As early as the 1970s, Niagara and St. John’s universities had become national leaders in Learn and Serve, but this has not resulted in many vocations.

Religious garb—I regard garb as a non-essential factor because, after my five decades of living religious life, I observe that wearing religious garb doesn’t compensate for the sacrifices involved in promising obedience to a bishop or professing vows in a religious community. At the 22 universities that I visited virtually 100 percent of the priests in administration, classrooms, campus ministry, and Newman Centers wear the Roman clerical collar except at Belmont Abbey, Franciscan University and Providence College, where the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans wear their respective brown, black, and white monastic habits.

Garb matters as a visible identifying factor.  It may attract vocations, but garb isn’t sufficient to retain vocations. Hostie points out that the third generation members of newer religious communities request to wear identifying garb. We see this phenomenon repeated now by the third generation youth after Vatican Council II.

An emphasis on Catholic identity is associated with a strong record of sending men to seminary.  In this photo Catholic University of America students take part in a campus-wide Way of the Cross.

Priests on campus—On the one hand, some Catholic universities enjoy an abundance of clerical presence and availability. Counting priests who serve as administrators, professors, campus ministers and students, and seminarians; ND has about 100 “Roman collars” on campus; BC, about 120; the Mount at Emmitsburg, about 175; and CUA, about 250. All of these institutions rank in the top half of vocation-sending universities. On the other hand, and similarly in or near that same top half are included the non-Catholic institutions of Auburn, Marist, Oklahoma State, Princeton and Texas A&M, which have only one priest on campus. Marist benefits, too, from two part-time lay brother campus ministers, and A&M receives weekend assistance.

Campus ministry staffing and facilities vary widely. Some universities and Newman Centers, namely, St. John’s, Texas A&M, Villanova, and Notre Dame employ about two dozen staff members. Most of the 22 campus ministry and Newman Center staffs studied here, however, have only a handful of employees. Some universities such as Auburn, Providence College, St. John’s University, and Texas A&M enjoy relatively new and extensive facilities, while other programs’ facilities are limited to a few 12-foot square offices and a small general meeting space.

Lay leadership plays a prominent role, but doesn’t seem to affect priestly vocations. Lay presidents lead two of the top vocation-producing Catholic universities, namely CUA and Mount St. Mary’s University at Emmitsburg.  In addition lay presidents lead three of the 15 Catholic universities on this list, namely, Canisius College, Mount St. Mary’s College at Newburgh, and St. John’s University. Almost half of the 15 Catholic universities considered herein, have lay directors of campus ministry. Regarding the seven non-Catholic universities, the directors of the Newman Centers are priests except at UNC-Charlotte and UNC-Greensboro, where laity lead the programs. On all campuses, staff members invite students to accept appropriate organizational and leadership responsibilities for adoration, rosary, retreats, prayer groups, and Bible studies.

In this article I’ve named factors that appear to encourage priestly vocations, as well as factors that seem to be neutral.  In addition I want call attention to a reality that simply deserves attention. A challenge for all vocation-promoters is the hiatus between college graduation and entrance into a seminary. For the class of 2015, the average age of ordinands was 34, and the median age was 31. Thus a hiatus of a few years occurs for most university-grad seminarians. Who is keeping in touch with these candidates during the interim between university and seminary? University-based vocation promoters and vocation directors will need to cooperate in accompanying candidates during this post-graduation period.

A few words of caution and encouragement

First a caution. This article identifies some common denominators found among the most successful vocation-sending Catholic universities and Newman Centers from my selected group of 22. This article suggests no necessary cause and effect relationship. Just incorporating these seven common denominators does not guarantee success in recruiting candidates. The situation is complex. Many factors affect success. Perhaps the most important factor might be the established culture within a particular university or Newman Center.

Now a word of encouragement. Mystery permeates this ministry. When Elijah tried to discern the movement of the Spirit, it surprised him in a gentle breeze (1 Kgs. 19.11-13). A contemporary mystery of vocation discernment is the “vocation boom” which the Eastern Province of the Dominican Friars is enjoying. Even the Dominicans are surprised! Although the province’s single college, namely, Providence College, has sent no candidate to the religious order in the past five years, young men are racing from all across the country to the Dominican House of Studies at DC. This past year, 58 seminarians were living and studying there.

The former provincial, and now archbishop, J. Augustine DiNola, O.P., wrote a few years ago that he suspects the sea change may have resulted from a coalescence of certain ecclesial, historical, and cultural factors. In my conversation with the Dominican provincial vocation director he suggested that the province’s vocation upsurge may be attributable to the universal Dominican spirit of sentire cum ecclesia and the Dominicans’ balanced transition between the pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II times. Who really knows? Vocation discernment and development ultimately remain clothed in mystery for all involved.

My intention in writing this article is that we vocation promoters might learn from one another. I hope that this information and analysis might lead to new insights, new ideas, and new successes. Most of all, I hope that we might practice St. Augustine’s instruction: “Pray as though everything depends on God. And work as though everything depends on you.”


Father Vincent J. O’Malley, C.M. has been a Vincentian priest since 1973. He has ministered for 22 years at Niagara University as an instructor, senior administrator, and now as university chaplain. For 13 years, he served in vocation-formation ministry: five as vocation director and eight as the college seminary student director.  He has published five books on saints and a dozen pastoral articles, mostly in  Priest magazine.  

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