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. 


  1. We will leave the celibacy issue alone, except to note that with the many additions of married priests from other denominations (particularly the recent Anglican additions), married priests are now much more than an occasional oddity.
    I did not see much on the size of families (and of course, the role of birth control). In previous times, with large Catholic families, it really was not a question of do we want a priest in the family, or grandchildren? Then it was typically both. Or perhaps it's just a coincidence that the decline in vocations grew as birth control use spread among Catholic families and the families grew smaller in size.

    1. Thanks for reading, and for your comment, Albert.

      I think an entire article could be written on priestly celibacy and married clergy. I agree that married priests are more than the 'occasional oddity' however in comparison to the celibate priests, they are still pretty rare. All indications from the Holy See show that celibate priesthood will remain the norm, and married clergy will remain the exception. It's also important to point out that if a married cleric's spouse dies, he cannot marry again. As I said above, admitting married men to priesthood is really different than allowing priests to marry (for various reasons).

      About the size of families- you're right, I didn't address this. I thought the article was too long to begin with, so I wanted to focus more on the suggestions, rather than the social etiology of the problem. In my opinion, I think the use of birth control, family size, and the vocation shortage are all definitely related and connected, but more likely symptoms or effects of the core sociological problem.

  2. Thanks for prompting conversation about the priest shortage and ways to resolve it-such an important topic!!! Surprisingly few people know about the priest shortage-even my fellow theology students in Boston did not realize there was a Catholic priest shortage, so more publicizing on this issue needs to be done. When i've asked vocations directors how to help they say "pray" but people have been praying for vocations for decades and the shortage is still getting worse. Not to say the Holy Spirit is not listening to our prayers but perhaps the Spirit is telling us it is time for change- time for married priests to be not an exception but a reality. We honestly do not know if the apostles married before or after their calls so who are we to say priests cannot marry after ordination? Marriage is not incompatible with ordination as we know from Peter. We have over 50,000 churches without a priest and kicking out priests who marry puts the man-made law of celibacy above having enough priests to pastor churches and confer sacraments. How will God judge us for allowing this????

    1. Rosanne, thanks for reading and for your comment.

      So priestly (and diaconal) celibacy is a discipline, not a doctrine, and therefore can be changed should the bishops find this appropriate.

      That being said, I can't see the Church changing this anytime soon. Married clergy isn't as much the issue as a "dating clergy." Canon Law permits ordination to deacon for celibate men at the age of 25, married men at age 35. This is because the married men generally need more time to get settled with married/family life before entering Holy Orders. Even after age 35, most dioceses will not consider an applicant if they have had a major life change within the past 3 years. With a dating clergy, the Church would have all sorts of "unsettled things" that would occur with dating and relationships, and this could be problematic.

      I can see sooner the allowance of married men being admitted to the priesthood (as they are to the diaconate) than allowing a dating clergy. This also would require a lot of changes within the organization of the Church, including paying priests a decent salary to support family life, and modifying the Program of Priestly Formation to accommodate married seminarians. However, I do not see this as an adequate solution to the vocations crises- the Eastern Rite Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches have plenty of married clergy, yet have the similar problems with priest shortages.

      Lastly, in response to "How will God judge us for allowing this???" Simply put, God isn't going to judge you or I on this. This decision is left up to the Holy See and the episcopacy. Each bishop is told at his ordination that he will be held accountable for the decisions he makes, and we the faithful are reminded that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. I'm pretty sure the bishops are more aware of the shortage of priests than we lay people do, as you pointed out at the beginning of your comment.

    2. Hi, these are great suggestions especially the financial support and asking young men if they have considered the priesthood. Forget married priesthood, that's not a solution.
      I was in a diocese where the Bishop did "Vocation Calls" (single life, married life, religious life and priesthood) prior to the end of every large event. It was amazing how many young men and women went forward to be prayed for and the results were astounding. At one time this small diocese was 2nd in the nation for number of seminarians. Seminarians still have bills, and as you said, cannot get a job. For example, car insurance for a young man is a large and constant expense.
      And newly ordained priests do not need another holy card or rosary, they need cash money as gifts and for at least several years after ordination. They pay a lot in taxes and usually have lots of stuff they want to buy, things to provide for US! Books and vestments and other things. We have to put our money where our mouth is if we truly believe what we say we do. God is gracious, but we have to do our part.

  3. Just wondering where you found the list of vocation, specifically including: dedicated single life. It's not usually listed since there is much debate as to if a person can be called to a single life.

    On another note, many people think that married priests are the way, but they don't take into account all that a priest does. A Catholic priest is for his flock 24 hours a day. He has not conflicts. He'll never be in the position of having to chose his people over his family or vice versa. He gives up his life for their spiritual well-being. Asking a married man to do that is asking him to be divided and unfair to one or the other. There are deep, deep logical reasons for keeping the priesthood celibate. It's not just some out-dated funny rule.

    As for women ordinations, it's a bit soft above. Blessed JP II said definitively in 1994: "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32), 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" (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4)." In 1995, the CDF, with the pope, affirmed the declaration on this matter infallible by ordinary and universal magisterium. Twice after, the CDF reaffirmed because people were being obstinate. They made is crucially clear: women priesthood is, infallibly, something the Church can never do.

    1. Anonymous, thank you for reading and for your comments. My replies for you are below.

      "Just wondering where you found the list of vocation..."
      I learned about the four types of vocation from my religion class in Catholic grade school back in the 1980s. It seemed common knowledge to me since then. I remember growing older that I thought of the four categories as an oversimplification since it doesn't take into account the permanent deacon (who can be married or celibate) and other hybrid-like situations.

      I'm not familiar with any Church document that specifically addresses the vocation of dedicated single life. I suppose it can be argued that is isn't a legitimate vocation, however if you ask someone who is baptized and celibate, but not ordained, not married, not a member of a religious order/congregation/society, and deliberately dedicated to the Church the way God intended him or her to be, they will tell you it is a vocation.

      "As for women ordinations, it's a bit soft above..."
      There is so much more to say about so called women ordinations, but that wasn't the point of the article. This is about support of vocations to the diocesan priesthood, not to discuss why women can't be deacons, priests, or bishops.

      If you're interested in what I think about women in the Church, visit here:

    2. The problem is that when we consumed religion classes, they were laced with propaganda. We must keep vigilant over what we receive and assimilate. It highlights the desperate need to adhere to what the Church truly teaches...unfiltered. So many people today fall into the mentality that their opinion is equal to or greater than the wisdom of the Church. People have to recognize that their opinion isn't protected by the Holy Spirit, nor is it in anyway authoritative.

      On to the topic, people call everything these days a vocation. The word has become very watered down. A teacher says she has a vocation. A doctor says she has a vocation. A hairstylist says he has a vocation. So we come to the word vocation...from the Latin "vocare," it signifies that one has been called. The direct factors are threefold: 1) there is someone calling, 2) there is someone called, 3) there is an end/task to which they have been called.
      Clearly, as the Church uses the word, the first factor is God. It is God Who calls a person to an end. There is a distinction between a specific vocation and our universal call/vocation, which is to holiness and unity with is found in Lumen Gentium. We can see in the above examples of various applications that people focus on the third factor: a person is called to the end of being a teacher, doctor, hairstylist. However, they forego the first factor, many times, because it sounds grandiose for something so mundane. The reason for this, I feel, is because they realize that they never heard a calling from God to actually do it. They misapply the word to signify that they feel apt, or even perfectly suited to the task. In some respects, they might even feel like "it's what I'm supposed to be doing" or "it just feels so right." However, these are not true vocations unless they have been called by someone to do that something. People often do whatever they want and then claim that God willed them to do it, without ever praying about it or waiting for God to lead them. They equate "happiness" with God's will.

      The hangup with the vocation of the single life is that you have to ask the third factor first: what is the person being called to? It seems like they are being called to a life alone. The logical procession is also biblical: what comes of it (what fruit does it bear)? Another way to put this is: what is the charism of the single life? The other three vocations have a very clear charism which (if followed as Gardner cultivates it to) produces very definite fruit. The charism, if there is one, for the single life is what is already shared by all the faithful: to grow in holiness and unity with God.

      It seems to be the catch all for single persons to just live as they are. But this is also not a vocation. A vocation has a very subtle, yet logically present, fourth factor: one is called by someone else to something from something else. It's this last part which is the most difficult to justify the single life as a vocation, however it is an important part of any vocation. We are called from a former life, a life we live for ourselves and by our own will. The universal call is to leave the life of sin. The particular vocations are called from the single life. Therefore, there exists a logical error when it is applied to the single life; one cannot be called from the single life to the single life. We could say that they are called to deeper holiness than the previous single life, but this again is the universal call of all the faithful.

    3. I believe that the single life as a vocation was formed "pastorally" to placate people in their lives. A vocation, any vocation, every vocation, is difficult. It requires a lot of sacrifice. However, God does not call us to something that is miserably, rather He calls us to what will fundamentally make us most happy, truly happy, in this life and bring us closest to Him. The single life requires no such sacrifice. It's a justification for people to feel like their can have their cake and eat it too. It says: "you're fine just as you are, no need to do anything difficult or selfless." This is not to imply that single people do not sometimes do selfless things; sometimes they are very giving and act selflessly...universal call to holiness. The three vocations require a great deal of sacrifice, and not just when and how much the person feels like sacrificing. It is truly selfless because the person sacrifices until they can't anymore; it is at this point that they grow close to Christ because He must act through them to enable a deeper sacrifice and gift of self. The single person relies upon themselves to sacrifice. When it gets to be too hard or challenging to sacrifice, they give up, saying: "ah well, I think I've done enough for now...let's have some me-time." Variations of this exist but characterize the single person. They get to stop because they are exercising their own will, but God is calling them to His Will and to a dependency on Him to make the sacrifice together. The wife/mother and the husband/father do not get to stop showing caritas to each other; they are committed. The same is true of the other two vocations. This is the last distinction that I will make: commitment.

      The three vocations are a real commitment that the person cannot just give up on. In the Church, they all take a vow before God; it is binding and potent, both signifying a real permanent state (with varying degrees) and providing grace to effect the vocation. The single life has no such vow, no such commitment. It is an amorphous pseudo-state of being without, where the other three are bindings to another, a with. Even secular society can recognize this; they often push people into marriage because it is a strange thing to be without. "Happiness" is seen by being together, especially formally; and thus we have a problem with so-called gay marriage. At the heart there is a need for us to finally commit ourselves to someone and submit our own will to a unity greater than our singular self. Because, unless we do, we never really know that we are capable of it, meaning that all of our selfless actions are in question. They might be just filling our own desire for the "good feeling" that comes with helping that case, it's selfish to do it for just the feeling. So our self-interested actions are never tested until we commit to something beyond our singular will.

      Bit more than my two cents, but there it is.

    4. Thank you again, anonymous, for your comments.

      Too bad this article is called "Supporting Priestly Vocations" and not why some anonymous person thinks the single life isn't a real vocation (or some sort of consolation prize).

  4. In response to your tips...
    1. Good idea.
    2. Absolutely. Although I would add that I don't think seminarians should be trying to have a job. They are undergoing spirtual, intellectual and personal formation. I can see that financial worries aren't going to help with this, but I don't think that a job is going to help them in any way at this vital stage in their lives. It could be seriously confusing. I will say though, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with giving a prayer card or rosary to a priest (or a consecrated person) because quite often they are in a position to pass those things on to people who really need them. Give with freedom ie allow the recipient to use what you give them in their mission.
    3. Excellent. The community as well as the individual are responsible for helping everyone to respond to God's Plan for them.
    4. Very true. I think you can be extremely welcoming to your priest without making him wash up (for example). Not because I think that priests are superhumans who shouldn't wash up, but because the priest has already given up his life to serve you and its nice if you can give a little back. Also he probably has to do his own housework every single day, so let him have a break! Obviously I don't mean that your family should abandon any guest in the living room while you do the dishes. I would suggest that you could also remind the priest that you value you him as a priest by asking him to bless your home or your family or say a prayer with is not just what he does, it is who he is.
    5. "Your priest is someone's son. Your son could be someone's priest." Support for families is essential.
    6. Yes: our happiness lies in fulfilling God's Plan. But it can be very difficult (especially for parents, who really want their children to be happy, as their happiness has come from marriage and children) to understand that someone can be happy and fulfilled with a different type of self-giving.


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