Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A bit of good news... but there's work to be done!

Ordination Mass of Fr. Scott Thomas, Diocese of Jackson, in 2010.

After a bit of a blog-posting absence, I wanted to let y'all know that I'm back just in time to join Father Joe in keeping you company (in an unobtrusive online way, not in a creepy, hanging out campus way) during these last few weeks of school.

In the past few weeks, there's been a lot going on in the Catholic world so I've got a lot of catching up to do. But there's no news like good news, so let me start by pointing to a hopeful bit of statistical data for the Church here in the U.S.

According to La Stampa (one of the most well-known and important Italian newspapers), latest statistics show that the Catholic Church in the United States has actually begun to see something of a boom in vocations to the priesthood. You read that correctly. A boom. As in explosion (in a good way). 

In fact, there have been so many applicants in the past couple of years, that some American dioceses have actually had to turn away applicants for lack of room in their seminaries. Crazy, right?

Unfortunately, this boom is not across the board in all American dioceses. How could we be better stewards of the vineyard in our own backyard and encourage a growth in priestly vocations here? 

Well, I'd argue that you consistently see three important commonalities in any dioceses which are experiencing a growth in priestly vocation numbers. Aside from the Holy Spirit, I'd say that these are the three vitally important ingredients to a growth in vocations to the priesthood:  

1) Supportive families, friends and parishes.

It all starts at home, so to speak, and the tiny embers of a potential priestly vocation can either be nurtured or squashed there. Family members (especially parents) and friends have to be supportive of a young man who expresses an interest in a vocation to the priesthood. Even better, family members and friends have to foster a family and social environment in which prayer and love of the Church are key elements. For young men who grow up and come of age in such a family and social environment, a priestly vocation is much more easy to prayerfully discern.

The local parish, too, has to do its part in fostering priestly vocations. From the youngest PSR/CCD class members to the high school youth group, the priesthood should be discussed as an honorable and very real possible vocation for the young men of the parish. None of this once in a blue moon, half-sarcastic, 'cause we have to say it "maybe one of you guys will be a priest" sort of thing. One thing that young people pick up on quicker than anything else is insincerity, so this constant promotion of the priesthood must be genuine. And it must be constant: not a gimmick or a panicky once-per-year appeal. A parish-wide call for young men to consider the priesthood. A measured, continual, heartfelt call. Oh, and don't underestimate the ability of service at the altar is to serve as another gateway which could lead some boys and young men to eventually consider the priesthood.

2) Excited and inspirational priests.

Kids grow up wanting to be professional athletes because they watch and look up to professional athletes. They grow up wanting to be teachers because they like and admire their teachers. Why? Because most athletes and most teachers love what they do. They really believe in what they do and it shows through their dedication and their earnestness. How do you crush a child's dreams of playing a professional sport of teaching a classroom full of children? Let the child have a run-in with a dispirited athlete. Or let them have a jaded teacher who complains about the education system and sarcastically treats the very material that he or she is supposed to be teaching. Hopes dashed.

It can be no different with the priesthood. To continue to produce good priests the Church must have (wait for it...) good priests! Priests who love Christ and his Church, priests who love the priesthood and priests who love serving others in the selfless manner of the Gospel. Wanna quickly kill a budding vocation to the priesthood? Let that young man meet a priest who complains about the Church and her teachings. Let him meet a priest who criticizes the priesthood and loudly espouses doubts and suspicions that the Church is somehow wrong in her teachings about the priesthood (along with other matters). Let him meet a priest who treats his priesthood as a 9-5 job, "clocking in" and "clocking out" and refusing to wear "the uniform" outside of "work hours." Again, hopes dashed.

3) Unconfused commitment to Truth and to priests at the diocesan level. 

Finally, encouragement in priestly vocation must also be patently evident at the diocesan level: from the bishop(s), to the chancery on down. Here, too, the priesthood must be consistently portrayed as a heroic and inspirational calling. Say what you may about the "JPII generation" but men in their 20s and 30s today are not afraid of a higher calling and -- largely because of Bl. John Paul II's bold witness -- many of us willingly accept the challenge to our generation to be radically counter-cultural in our fidelity to the Church and in living out the teachings of Christ.

The dioceses who hope to see an increase in priestly vocations must tap into this enthusiasm. They must do this by taking up and extending JPII's challenge (to "be not afraid" but to boldly serve Christ and his Church above all else) to the next generation. A happy and holy priesthood must constantly be promoted in creative and inspirational ways. Social media, Youtube, Twitter, blogs: these all have to be used to their fullest extent in getting out the word that "this" diocese is serious about producing great priests for the Church. Families and parishes have to be inundated with materials which instructs them how to create fertile environments for priestly vocations and they must be given fresh ideas for promoting the priesthood at the local level.

And then, the dioceses must ante up. They must step up to the plate by being a local church that not only fosters vocations to the priesthood, but also vigorously supports their current priests. How can they do this? By sending clear signals of support for the irreplaceable role of the priest in the local parish - support which distinguishes between the rightful role of the priesthood and the role of the laity. In other words, dioceses shouldn't create climate of modern-day clericalism where lay men and women are routinely charged with carrying out what should be pastoral duties within parishes while priests simply drop in as infrequent guests (i.e. "sacramental ministers") who are only present because of their "special powers." This model of parish leadership unfairly separates priests from lay people, unintentionally creating an artificial barrier between the two which diminishes the priests role as shepherd and diminishes his ability to effectively model servant-leadership for their local flock.

No one wants to work for a corporation that is gloomy, negative and unsupportive of its employees. So it is no surprise that dioceses who want to foster priestly vocations must work very hard not only to nurture and support viable priestly vocations, but also to give loving, fraternal (and paternal) support to current priests. Dioceses must do this by reallocating financial resources to better support priests long-term and to support (as a clear diocesan priority) the education of future priests.

God willing, this boom of priestly vocations will spread throughout the Church. But none of us can sit around waiting for it to happen. Pray for our seminarians and for more vocations to the priesthood!