St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Friday, June 29, 2012

Supporting Priestly Vocations

The Church in the United States has a vocations problem. (This may seem obvious to most, but there's still a few people that don't realize this.) 

When people hear vocations, they usually think priesthood and religious life, although these are actually two distinct vocations among the others. (I'm actually a big fan of not grouping priests and religious together- a priest is not a nun with a jacket.) It's also necessary to point out that the vocation problem isn't limited to the priesthood and vowed religious, but also exists for marriage and the dedicated single life. 

Each vocational group is vital and necessary for the Church, however I'm focusing on vocations to the priesthood, particularly the diocesan priesthood. Our Church is centered on sacraments, almost all of which are administered by priests. Without priests there are no sacraments. Without sacraments, I'm not so sure there would be a Catholic Church.

In most areas, the problem is simple- there are not enough priests to meet the needs of the local Church.  Is it because God is calling less men to priestly orders?  I doubt it.  Times are different now, and thanks to societal changes, men aren't realizing the call or aren't able to respond to the call as they could before.  A similar problem is occurring with marriage and its decline in numbers- either couples aren't getting married in the Church, or they aren't seeing it as a vocation with important spiritual essentials including fidelity and permanency.

In other parts of the Church, the problem might be more intricate.  For example, they have priests, but the average age within the presbyterate (the body of priests in a diocese) could be 70 years, with no one to replace them when they retire.  Their replacements may all be young priests or seminarians in their 20's who won't be ready to fill the shoes of the more experienced pastors for a couple decades.

Lastly, in some dioceses the problem might be financial. People who complain that the Church has too much money haven't been to a diocese that is mostly rural or where the Catholic population is small and spread over a large area.  The tuition alone for a Catholic seminary is around $10k-$12k per semester. With each seminarian in school for 5-6 years, the cost for priestly formation really adds up.  A few places have to ask the seminarian to borrow for their education rather than funding the cost (then the diocese provides financial assistance after ordination).  This could really discourage men from applying if they are unable or unwilling to do this since most applicants carry debt from previous education or even from life in general (car payment, mortgage, etc).

So what can we do to address the problems? Off limits are discussing changes the ministerial priesthood- this includes women priests or allowing priests to marry. I don't mind talking about these issues, but since I am a layperson with absolutely no authority in the matter whatsoever, there's no use in talking about it.  Allowing priests to get married is not very likely, and is actually very different than admitting married men to priesthood (which is more the exception than the norm). Regarding women ordination, Blessed John Paul II made it pretty clear in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) by saying: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful." So women ordination advocates, there's no need to hold your breath.

Now that we've covered that stuff, let's back to the matter at hand. Here are six practical suggestions for promoting and supporting priestly vocations mostly from my own experience. (For my vocation story, see A Path to Holiness.)

Tip #1. Every diocese has a vocation director- know who this is and ask how you can help. This role is usually held by a priest or a team of priests who act in the name of the diocesan bishop in matters of vocations. In some cases, the diocesan bishop may hold the role or parts of the role to himself. Normally at the ordination liturgy, this is the priest who presents the ordinand to the bishop and testifies to his readiness for sacred orders.  His primary responsibility is the recruitment of priestly candidates.  Depending on the diocese, the vocation director usually also serves as the bishop's liaison to the seminary (if outside the diocese) and oversees the overall training of the seminarian for the diocesan bishop.

Vocations poster circa 1995. That's me on the lower left.
Typically the vocation director travels around the diocese offering presentations and meeting with applicants. He's usually the one who produces all the vocation posters and advertisements. In this regard, he functions much like a college recruiter. He may ask parish pastors and fellow diocesan priests to assist him with these duties. It can be a hard job, especially if the vocation director is also a parish pastor or has additional diocesan assignments.

Tip #2. Support the seminarians in your diocese. A seminarian is affiliated with a particular diocese where they will be ordained and serve as a priest. Support the ones affiliated with your diocese. You may find a seminarian living/working at your parish for the summer or on a pastoral year- he would be an easy one to support. If there's a larger seminary within your diocese, there will be men from other dioceses sent there to study who can be a long way from home (this was the case for me when I was in the seminary), so consider supporting them, too.  What do I mean by support?  Pray for them.  Feed them. Help them a little financially here and there.  Seminarians are busy college or graduate students, and therefore have empty wallets (with the exception of a periodic stipend).  In most cases, they aren't able to hold meaningful employment while studying or on pastoral assignments.  A little money for gas or pizza can go a long way.

Tip #3. If you think someone would make a good priest, tell him! This might seem a little rudimentary, but people overlook this all the time. God doesn't send e-mails (at least I've never received one). He uses people like you and I to convey His message. Don't be discouraged if the guy currently has a girlfriend.  What it takes to be a good priest is also what it takes to be a good husband and father.  The difference is how God calls them to serve. So if you think someone has the call to priesthood, say something to him.

Tip #4. Support the priestly vocations that we already have. Don't forget about your pastor and other priests you know. These guys work hard, and often have to work as lone rangers. Nowadays, they typically live alone and may not see another priest with any frequency. The pastor sees himself as the head of a parish family, so it wouldn't hurt to make him a part of yours once in a while. Invite him out to eat with your family after Mass, or have him over for dinner.  Even if he doesn't accept, he'll really appreciate the invitation.  If he comes over for dinner, you don't have to treat him as an honored guest- priests like respect, but they also appreciate familiarity. Let him set the table before hand or ask him to help dry the dishes afterward, just like you would any other family friend.  The company of your family with a home cooked meal is a blessing; even more so he gets to take part in the preparation or clean up.

Tip #5. Examine and process your own personal feelings about priests.   Some people don't realize how much the pedophilia scandal affected them.  It's affected a lot of people with hurt and anger, even they don't know any of the victims or priests that were involved.  Has the scandal impacted vocations?  Depends on who you ask.  Some say it has deterred applicants, others say it has encouraged more dedicated and committed men to the seminaries.

But even without the scandal, you'd be surprised what people thought about priests and didn't realize it. On more than one occasion, I've had parents emphasize that the Church needs good priests, but when you would ask them about one of their own kids becoming a priest, you'd get something like "Oh no. Johnny could never be a priest, we're going to have grandchildren." In other words, it's okay to encourage someone to be a priest, just not someone in your own family...that's worthy of a pause for thought.

This last suggestion is for priests. (Since there's a few that read this blog.)

Tip #6. Tell people how happy you are! No one is going to want to be a priest if they don't know you, or know how happy you really are. Timothy Cardinal Dolan wrote on Twitter:
"As a kid, priests and sisters showed me that giving your life to Jesus was a happy thing to do! If we can recover that, we'd be onto something." (June 18, 2012)
Concluding with good news, perhaps priestly happiness is becoming more visible.  The numbers for vocations are starting to trend up.  Seminary enrollment has been increasing, to the point where a few schools are nearing capacity. That's a good problem to have, even if we won't notice it in the parishes for a few more years. 

I'm happy to have your thoughts or suggestions about promoting & supporting priestly vocations attached to this blog post. Please comment below!

St John Vianney, patron saint for priests, pray for us. 

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