National Vocations Awareness Week for the Church in the United States was moved from January to this past week. The particular focus of this week is vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I would like to focus especially on the priesthood, given that the crisis in priestly vocations is so concretely experienced by us in the Diocese of Toledo. Our “pastoral planning” – closing of various parishes, twinning and merging of others – for the past twenty years has been necessitated primarily by the decline of priests. One could add that some of the planning has taken into consideration demographic changes – e.g. people moving out of cities into suburbs – but the overriding factor has been the lack of priests. Some years ago we calculated the number of deaths, retirements and new vocations; and we planned accordingly, deanery by deanery, how to survive with fewer priests.
What about new vocations to the priesthood? Nationally we can rejoice that most seminaries around the country are experiencing an increase. I consider this fruit of the New Evangelization preached by the last few Popes, especially Pope Saint John Paul II. Every seminary I am in touch with (because of friendships with priests working in those seminaries) is figuring out how to make more space. At the Josephinum, where I was on faculty through 2008, the seminary was turning guest rooms back into student rooms, and there was talk of using attic space above the library as dormitory space. The same was the case with Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit last time I visited, a couple years ago. Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmetsburg has been full for some years now. I could go on with the list. So we can thank the Lord for an increase that hopefully we will actually start to feel in a couple of decades. (We still do not have enough men in seminary in Toledo. A few years ago somebody told me we needed regularly forty seminarians spread across the years of formation in order to meet the need. We currently have only 23 or so.)
The basis for an increase in priestly vocations is a renewal of Faith in families. Children who grow up in families where the Faith is a reality – i.e., where relationship with Jesus Christ is fostered explicitly – will learn to ask God what He desires for their lives, what vocation He has planned for them. Believe it or not, there are actually Catholic families where sons are not encouraged to consider priesthood.
I remember an instance some years ago when I wanted to invite a young man to one of the Diocese’s regional “Andrew Dinners”, where a young man gets to have dinner with the Bishop and the Vocations Director. I approached the young man’s mother to ask if her son could attend. Her spontaneous and honest answer was, “I don’t want him to ruin his life.” What!? Does the priesthood look that tragic? I was so shocked that I didn’t pursue the question further to learn why she thought the priesthood would be ruinous. In hindsight, perhaps, I should have said something like, “But Life Himself would come through your son’s hands during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! How could he be ruined by that?”
After that experience I spoke with a Vocations Director who told me he heard something similar regularly. What are the three obstacles to priestly vocations he said he most encountered? Young men’s fear of celibacy (understandable!), problems with impurity, and resistance of parents. Here is a beacon call to us in families to teach children a theology of purity with their bodies (I hope Pope Saint John Paul II’s “theology of the body” can become common knowledge in our parish. I am thinking about how to make that happen.), as well as teaching them to know the Lord and to be open to His direction for their lives. Every young man should ask the Lord about priesthood.
May the Lord grant in increase in priestly and religious vocations to our diocese and country. Thank you for all of the prayers, thoughts and cards I received for Priesthood Sunday! Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,