It is certainly too early to tell since the economic downturn happened within the current academic year. In general, our overall trend over the last few years has been a slight increase in vocations to the priesthood. We anticipate this trend will continue.
Historically, times of challenge or crisis usually bring out the best in people. We saw a huge boon in candidates to the priesthood after the Great Depression and World War II. These times brought out the best in people as they saw raw reality: death, sorrow, poverty, and needs of every kind around them.
In the course of the past few years, 13 percent of our newly ordained priests have previously served in the military. The ongoing war and the numbers of people serving in the armed forces, in my opinion, will mean that more young men and women will be coming home with a very sobering view of reality. It makes a young person take pause at an earlier age and ask "what is life all about?" and "what can I do to make a difference in this crazy world of ours?"
Since the numbers of young men responding to the call of Christ to enter the seminary has been on the rise recently, I can only imagine that the downturn in the economy will, in some strange way, continue to help the numbers. However, this is not a form of escapism. These candidates are not trying to escape the hardships of life, but rather desire to help others as the needs of the world increase. They have realized that their salvation is not in money or in the financial markets. More young people are asking themselves "what is the meaning of life?" and "how can I help others?" The answer that many are coming up with is: helping people get to heaven is the true bottom line at the end of the day.
The economic downturn will most likely result in a generous response. Seeing hardship moves one's heart to love, as Jesus said, "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends."
Father Toups is a priest of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. He's served as a parish priest, theology professor and seminary dean of students. In 2008, he published the book Reclaiming Our Priestly Character.