The year is off to a good start for Catholic Bishop J. Kevin Boland and the Diocese of Savannah.
The diocese, which includes the Augusta area, earned the No. 2 spot among 176 dioceses in the United States for its vitality, according to the results of a study published in the February/March issue of Crisis magazine.
In January, National Catholic Register reporter Tim Drake went to Savannah's priests for his story. It said that priests have a primary role in inviting men to consider religious life.
"Good news is always acceptable," Bishop Boland said by telephone from Savannah. His flock of nearly 74,000 represents a sliver (3-4 percent) of the Georgians living in his south Georgia jurisdiction.
For its size, Savannah has a relatively high number of active priests, seminarians and adult converts, in the estimation of the Crisis authors, the Rev. Rodger Hunter-Hall and Steven Wagner. Their analysis ran under the headline "The State of the Church in America, Diocese by Diocese."
Using statistics from the Official Catholic Directory, they ranked the 176 Latin Rite dioceses in three crucial areas. Their goal was to study the role played by local bishops between 1995 and 2005.
In an attempt to gauge clergy morale, they determined whether the number of active priests in a diocese was rising or falling. Five dioceses stayed the same; 29, including Savannah, experienced growth; and 141 sustained decreases.
Mr. Wagner and the Rev. Hunter-Hall next counted the number of priests being ordained, using a scale that did not discriminate against small dioceses. On the negative end of the scale, 48 dioceses had no ordinations in 2005. Savannah had the second-highest percentage of ordinations in 2005, according to the study.
"All kinds of factors can affect morale and the number of ordinations," said the Rev. Hunter-Hall, who teaches at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. "But these statistics at least provide insights into whether a bishop is attracting new priests and whether or not he has created a climate that makes men want to serve in his diocese."
To gauge the effectiveness of evangelism efforts, the authors charted the number of adult converts in each diocese. Once again, the writers stressed that Catholicism is experiencing rapid growth in some regions because of immigration and intermarriage.
That kind of growth, however, "isn't the same thing as people making decisions to convert because of the faith itself," the Rev. Hunter-Hall said. "If you see converts streaming into the church, that almost always tells you something about the spiritual climate in a diocese. That usually has something to do with the bishop."
Finally, the researchers combined these three factors and determined which dioceses they thought had improved and declined the most during the past decade. The top 20 list was dominated by small dioceses - including many in the Bible Belt. The sharpest declines were in the Northeast.
Thus, the writers reported: "The church is ... most healthy in that region that is traditionally the least hospitable to it, and is least healthy in that region where it has the longest history, and in which are found the greatest concentration of Catholics (as a percentage of the population) and the largest number of Catholics."
Over the years, fellow bishops have found Savannah's success in ordaining priests extraordinary, Bishop Boland said.
The Crisis authors' suggestion that smaller dioceses are a formula for church growth is simplistic, he said. He agrees with his colleague, Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz, of the No. 1 diocese in Knoxville, Tenn., that smaller dioceses work hard to build good relationships with the non-Catholic population.
"You want to put your best foot forward and make sure that the Catholic faith is proclaimed in a dynamic and understandable way to the larger population," Bishop Boland said.
The Crisis article also said that vigorous dioceses are savvy about using their Web sites to recruit priests and are likely to have a bishop who personally encourages the clergymen.
Savannah and its bishop fit the mold. Though Savannah has committed many human resources, including strong vocations directors, to increase seminarians, those are not the reasons for its success; prayer is, Bishop Boland said.
The people of Savannah have been praying for the past 50 years for priestly vocations, the bishop said.
"It is a case of God helps those who help themselves," he said.
By the numbers
A 2006 snapshot of Catholics in the U.S.:
69.1 million: Catholics in the U.S. (23 percent of the population)
42,271: Priests in the United States
18,992: U.S. parishes
Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, usccb.org/comm/cip.shtml