The Crisis of Priestly Vocations: Good Advise From A Smart Priest

As someone who has lived on 3 continents and in 11 U.S. dioceses during my adult life, I have seen a lot where vocations are concerned. The Liturgy Guy said it well recently when he noted that the answer to increased vocations isn’t beyond our capability. Unfortunately, our chanceries have often spent too much time and money searching for vocations in all the wrong places. [My old pastor Msgr. Schuler, speaking of the horrid situation of the seminary and vocations back in the 80’s and 90’s used to say that the Powers That Were couldn’t answer three fundamental questions: 1) Who is Christ? 2) Who is the Church? 3) Who is the priest? Get those wrong, or waffle, and you are done for.]

One thing gets me. A lot of people in the Church seem to have difficulty coming to an agreement as to why there is a shortage of priests. I cannot speak for any country besides the United States, but what I hear ranges from:

  1. We allow girls to be altar servers, now the boys don’t see it as that great masculine entry point into a vocation.

  2. Our culture has become more secular. In the old days, families would not be hard pressed to assume one or more of their children would enter religious life, nowadays, many parents would see it as their child throwing away their life.

  3. Priestly celibacy may turn off certain aspirants from the priesthood. If we allowed Latin rite priests to marry (as in the Eastern Churches), then more men would be willing to take up the call.

These three items are important to discuss.

I believe that number one is hokum in many (not all) cases. I would have loathed being an altar server had it only been the boys. The fact that girls were involved actually made a lot of the (middle school/to high school) boys more willing to take part in Parish life. I do realize that there are dioceses in which they have returned to only male altar servers in which vocations are higher, but I just know from my experience that for many young men, this is not the case.

Number two seems very likely to me. I remember reading about Old Catholicism (pre-Reformation) when there was essentially only one Church. I was amazed that parents would have two sons and expect one to join the family trade while hoping the second would become a pries. If a daughter decided to go into a convent, sometimes there might be a somewhat negative reaction, but it was more akin to wanting your child to be a lawyer, but they find their calling is to teaching English–more of a, “Are you really sure that’s what you want?” type of situation. Religious life was definitely treated as a more respected “life-calling” than it is today.

Number three is interesting. I am extremely glad the Pope Francis is at least taking a look at this. If they find that eliminating or reducing priestly celibacy would be viable, would increase the number of vocations, and would not be breaking some dogma, then I say go for it. If they find that doing so would have no effect, or would hurt more than it helps, I say drop it and never look at it again. I don’t have an opinion (which I believe makes me a critically endangered species) on this matter. I have found myself leaning one way or the other, but I want them to take an unbiased look into the topic.

Something that I don’t hear much on Catholic Radio when they discuss the lack of vocations is the abuse scandal. After learning about the scandal, hearing testimonies given by children our own age, and even seeing some priests we knew removed from ministry, no boy I met would ever want to graft themselves into that stigma. The Church, I feel, needs to look at the effect that the scandal(s) had on young boys’/men’s perception of the priesthood. There are too many young Catholics who don’t have a firm enough grasp as to the importance of Holy Orders to keep the stigma from turning them completely off to the idea, and better yet, nobody in the Church is taking the time or effort to change that. Realize that in any non-specifically-Catholic media, the only stories pertaining to Catholic priests (save their coverage of Pope Francis’s off the cuff comments) ever mentioned in the public sphere is: Fr. so-and-so, Bishop Whatsisname, or John Cardinal Doe (who actually is good friends with the Pope, I mean look, we found a picture of them in the same room from ten years back) being brought in to face sex abuse charges. The least that the Church, and I mean the BIG Church (as in Rome [yes,I really mean Rome]) should be doing everything in their power to combat this, or eventually there will be so few priests that it becomes a true crisis.

Another thought is this: I was never ONCE talked to about the priesthood as if it were something worth doing. We would have a class for Confirmation, First Holy Communion, and Confession, would learn about marriage, Baptism, and the anointing of the sick. When it came to Holy Orders,we were basically told, “and there’s this seventh one, but it doesn’t really involve you guys.”



What I learned about the married priesthood in the Orthodox church, I learned from a visit to the Orthodox church in Seattle. The priest was married. He explained how an Orthodox priest was limited to the parish level. This does make sense taking into consideration the responsibilities of a bishop. As St. Paul tells us in Scripture, a married man must be concerned about his wife, while a single man can concentrate on pleasing the Lord.
Years ago, I read a book called The Fall of the Roman Church. One of the issues mentioned was that of simony. It is that scandal that led to the celebrate priesthood, and those within the Roman rite no longer being married. I do like the limitation placed on upward mobility that the Orthodox church has in place.
There are of course, a few exceptions to the rule, since celibacy is a discipline and not dogma. The most notable are married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism.
I am happy the diaconate was reinstated after Vatican II, giving married men an added option for service within the Church. The role the deacon’s wife plays has been discovered over time, and she too takes part in his formation.
Naturally a man who chooses monastic life chooses a celibate life.

The Dominican Sisters of Nashville, TN remind those who consider religious life that it is not a job, but a way of becoming. It is a calling.

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