As the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis approached in mid-March, the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project noted the pope’s overwhelming popularity but reported it could not tease out a discernible “Francis effect” in the behavior of American Catholics. Pew researchers may want to consider interviewing Jesuit vocation directors who are reporting a surge in vocation inquiries since Pope Francis’ election.
Many of the U.S. Jesuit regional vocation offices on the East Coast are reporting a significant uptick in vocation inquiries—anywhere from a low of 67 percent to a high of 116 percent. 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 Frederico said. “I’m psyched,” he adds with a laugh. “This is good. I’m busy.” Father Frederico believes other provinces around the country 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 Father 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 [inquiries] a week now,” he said. “Prior [to Pope Francis] we were getting two a week.” It can take years for those expressions of interest to translate into strong candidates for ordination, but Father Frederico 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.
Father Frederico believes Francis has been a liberating model for young people who may have felt a call but were discouraged by social attitudes against the church. Even among those whom Father Frederico does not consider strong candidates, he can find some evidence of the pope’s impact. Many of them, according to Father Frederico, told him they have been away from the church for years but have felt a renewed interest 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 inquiries and web and social media traffic as evidence.
Tuohy first began noticing increasing interest in July as the pope 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. 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.”