Pew Research says it can't tease out a discernable Pope “Francis effect” in the behavior of American Catholics, but maybe it needs to look beyond its telephone surveys. Talking to some vocation directors might make a good start. Jesuit vocations officers, for instance, are reporting a surge in vocation inquiries since Pope Francis’ election.
Chuck Frederico, S.J., vocations director for the Jesuits of the Maryland, New England and New York Provinces, said Pew is definitely missing what has been happening in his office. He has been “flooded with inquiries” in the last year about vocations with the Jesuits. “From the day that [Pope Francis] was elected through the present our website has been constant with people filling out the form,” Father Federico said. “I’m psyched,” he adds with a laugh. “This is good. I’m busy. It's been a good run this past couple of months.”
Men interested in exploring the possibility of joining the Jesuits first make contact with the religious order through regional vocation offices. Those offices are reporting a significant uptick in vocation inquiries—anywhere from a low of 67 percent to a high of 116 percent along the East Coast. Father Federico believes other U.S. provinces are experiencing the same phenomenon.
“We’ve been hearing from a tremendous number of young men who have no experience with the Society of Jesus, which isn’t typical because so many of our vocations come from men who have attended Jesuit high schools or colleges,” said Frederico. “But these men are new to the Jesuits, and they are inspired by the Holy Father. They’re excited about the Catholic Church and, because of the example of Pope Francis, they want to learn more about the Jesuits. It’s been a tremendous gift.
“We get five to ten a week now,” he said. “Prior to [Pope Francis] we were getting two a week.” It can take years for those inquiries to translate into strong candidates for ordination, but Federico remains excited about the higher numbers. “At least a quarter of the serious candidates that I work with have been added as a result of the pope’s election,” he said.
Federico believes Francis has been a liberating model for young people who may have felt a call to vocation but felt discouraged by social attitudes against the church. Even among those whom Federico does not consider strong candidates, he can find some evidence of the pope's impact. Many of them, according to Federico, told him they have been away from the church for years but have felt a renewed interest in the church because of Francis.
But it is not just the Jesuits who have been experiencing the Pope Francis “vocation effect.”
Patrice Tuohy is the executive editor of the Vision Vocation guide, a print and online vocations resource published by the National Religious Vocation Conference. “We’re definitely experiencing a Francis Effect,” she said. Tuohy cites increased traffic and inquiries via the web site as evidence. She says the higher activity has been broad-based with site visitors seeking out information about opportunities in both men and women’s religious life as brothers, sisters, priests and lay volunteers.
Tuohy first began noticing increasing interest in July as the pope first began gathering world headlines during the World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil.
“We’re still not talking about huge numbers here,” she cautions. “In a world that is selling sex, power and money, we’re still selling chastity, poverty and obedience. It’s a tough sell.” All the same, Tuohy believes Pope Francis has been “planting seeds” that may eventually translate into more vocations. “Many of them are just starting their vocation journey, and any uptick is significant, but it could be four or five or six years before a vocation comes out of it,” she said, adding. “We’re in it for the long game here.”
Tuohy reports that 74 percent of the people who responded to a survey at Vision said Pope Francis had spurred their interest in a religious life. “That is what Francis is doing,” she said. “He is putting religious life and a church vocation on the radar for young people when it has not been on their radar for a number of years.”
Photo: Pope Francis arrives bag in hand for a week-long Lenten retreat with senior members of the Roman Curia in Ariccia, near Rome, on March 9