Among Dominicans in the Southeastern United States, vocations are up. So much so, in fact, that the order's New Orleans-based fund-raisers are slightly panicked because they have more men headed into the Dominican seminary in St. Louis than they can comfortably afford to train. "When we used to have just eight students in studies, it was no problem," said the Rev. John Pitzer of the Dominicans' development office in New Orleans. "Now it's 21, and we've got a problem. Well, not a problem. A challenge."
Dominicans have divided the United States into four huge chunks, or provinces. The Southern Province, based in New Orleans, covers 11 Southeastern states. Like other orders and the diocesan priesthood, Dominicans' numbers began to nosedive as applicants slowed to a trickle in the social upheavals that began in the 1960s. As recently as 1995, Dominicans in the Southern Province could count only seven seminarians and three novices -- men living among Dominicans for a tryout year to see whether they are a good fit for the Dominican style of Catholic community.
Now, 21 are in the seminary, with 12 novices living with Dominicans and thinking about entering, Pitzer said. And 17 men already have signed up for next year's novice class. "We'll probably have 21 or 22 by the time the year is out," said the Rev. Hank Groover, the order's local vocations director. Unfortunately for Catholic bishops, the upturn does not yet appear to be a broad trend.
While there are signs the three-decade decline in priestly vocations may have hit bottom in the mid-1990s, the rebound since then is too slight and too new to say much about, said Mary Gautier, a sociologist at the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., which studies such trends for the church. "The bad side is that even though the numbers are rising ever so slightly, twice as many priests are dying or resigning each year as there are new guys coming in," she said.
One partial explanation for the higher Dominican numbers: Latin American bishops, who prefer to mold teen-agers into priests, tend to refer older candidates to Dominicans in North America, Groover said.
But that contributes only about a third of the increases, Groover and others said. Groover stresses the Dominicans' commitment to serving immigrant minorities in the United States, where vocations tend to be richer. His vocations Web site (http://www.opsouth.org/opsite/vocation/index.html) describes the attractiveness of becoming a Dominican priest in English, Creole, French and soon Vietnamese -- as well as the Spanish that every Southern Province Dominican has to learn, he said.
Moreover, a distinctive trait of Dominican life may be a selling point, Groover said: Dominicans everywhere live in houses of at least six men, even pulling out of smaller cities to regroup lest Dominican priests be by themselves in rectories. That factor may be more important than candidates realize.
A Catholic University study recently released found that 10 percent to 15 percent of priests resign within the first five years largely because they feel lonely and unappreciated. "People come and see us and find us generally happy and relatively sane communities," Groover said. "I don't think we're fishing in a secret fishin' hole; I just think we have a healthy, happy community, and people can see that."