25 February 2010

What to do (and not do) about vocations

A four year old post on vocations to the priesthood. . .

I wanted to suggest the following about vocations:

1). There is no vocations crisis. God is calling more than enough men to the priesthood to cover the needs of the Church. The real crisis is twofold: a). crisis of commitment and b). crisis of encouragement. The crisis of commitment is the result of the reluctance of the men who are called to say YES to their call. Most men called to priesthood are opting for careers that will only partially perfect their gifts. They can be happy, of course, but they are not picking up the greater challenge of sacrificial service in the Church. The crisis of encouragement is more complex. Basically, mothers and fathers are not supporting sons who express an interest in say YES to God’s call. This has to do with a decline in the prestige of the priesthood and the easier availability of a formal education for lower and middle-class men. We also have to look to the bishops, their vocation directors, and their discernment and vetting processes. Do the people the bishop trusts to recruit and vet his vocations really believe that an ordained priesthood is necessary for the flourishing of the Church? Is there a culture of priestly community in the diocese? Are the priests happy and encouraging of vocations? Bottomline: no sensible young man with a vocation is remotely interested in signing on to a religious order or a diocese if it is clear that those in charge think his vocation to ordained ministry is an ideological problem, a theological inconvenience, or a political obstacle to the Great Lay Revolution. And no young man is remotely interested in joining an order or a diocese controlled by bitter, angry ideologues who loudly and proudly celebrate the coming demise of the priesthood. Who wants to jump on a failing project as it sinks under the weight of its stewards’ neglect?

2). If we have all the vocations we need, but those vocations aren’t saying YES, what do we need to do? First, give God constant thanks for the vocations He has called. Gratitude sets the stage for humility and the current crisis in commitment and encouragement needs all the humility it can get. Second, pray that God will encourage (literally, “strengthen the hearts of”) those whom He has called. Pray that they will say YES. Third, personally, one-on-one invite a young man to think about priesthood. If there’s any inkling in his mind that he has been called, your affirmation will reinforce that inkling into a stirring and the stirring into a desire and so on. Fourth, make sure that you understand who your priest is. I mean, study up on the nature of the priesthood. Get the Catechism and spend some time studying what the Church teaches about priesthood. Ignore functional models of priesthood (i.e., the priesthood is a job or a role) and ignore attempts to turn the Catholic priest into a Protestant minister (i.e., a minister of the Word in the pulpit but not a priest at the altar of sacrifice!). Also avoid all attempts to understand that priesthood is rooted in baptism only. We all minister to one another out of our baptisms. But the ordained priest ministers out of his baptism AND out of his ordination. To say that he ministers as a priest out of his baptism only is an attempt by some to diminish the sacramental character of Holy Orders and reduce the priesthood to something like a Parochial Facilitator of Charisms. One more thing to avoid: please don’t lump a vocation to the priesthood in with vocations to the married life, the single life, ad. nau. Of course, these vocations are perfectly true and good and beautiful. But we aren’t suffering as a Church from a lack of husbands and single women. Lumping priestly vocations in with all other Christian vocations tends to level the priestly vocation and hides the urgency of the crisises of commitment and encouragement. This is NOT about the priestly vocation being “better” than any other vocation. It is about the Church being loud and clear that we need priests and that we value the vocation for itself and not as a tacked-on afterthought during the prayers of the people.

Those called to priesthood will not be encouraged to say YES to their call until it is crystal clear to them that we need them. Communion Services and other forms of “celebrations in the absence of a priest” only serve to reinforce the idea that a priest for Mass is a luxury. Given all the other negatives about the priesthood these days, do we really need to carry on with our Sunday worship as if the priest were a rare creature slowly moving into extinction? I imagine a young man in the pews at St. Bubba’s, attending a month or two’s worth of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest and thinking, “Hey, I don’t need to say YES to God’s call to priesthood. We’re getting along just fine here at St. Bubba’s w/o one.” In fact, why don’t we just elect one bishop somewhere in Kansas to consecrate several warehouses of hosts every week and then use FedEx to ship those hosts to all the parishes in the country for communion services. That way we can get rid of the priesthood and the episcopate altogether. Much cheaper and easier than educating men to be parish priests. Well, I guess we would have to keep one priest and one seminarian in the pipeline at all times as replacements.

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  1. What would you say about the constant "encouragement" given to those of us who do not discern a call? I have prayed about and continue to remain open to the Priesthood, but I do not believe that God is calling me to use my gifts in that manner. But there are a few very persistent people in my life (usually ones who don't know me very well such as my parish priest) who continue to hammer on me about the priesthood.

    I find it difficult to explain why I don't wish to be a priest (or more specifically, why I feel called to married life) because they always have a ready answer. If I say I want to be a father, I get "a priest is father of a whole parish!". If I say I believe my talents and gifts would be better fulfilled in a family, I'm told "you can use those same talents to run a parish". If I say I don't believe I could be happy as a priest, I'm told "you can't know until you try". And I know at least two people who experienced veiled hostility from their pastors as soon as they got girlfriends because they were "keeping them from becoming priests".

    I don't pretend to have my life figured out yet, but these kind of comments are not helpful. If people want to encourage young men to look seriously at the priesthood, they need to take the time to understand the people they are encouraging. "He'd make a good priest" is a very serious thing to say. If I haven't figured it out on my own, how can someone else? Just because someone goes to Mass every week or volunteers at RCIA doesn't mean he'd make a good priest. It doesn't mean he has a call.

    A huge part of the crisis is that being a "good Catholic boy" automatically subjects you to constant nagging to go to seminary. It's no wonder I know so many men who have just stopped being involved in the Church.

  2. John Kasaian8:31 AM

    There is a disconnect between priests and religious, and children. This disconnect is strengthened by the lack of priests and the protections mandated to protect children from exposure to to situations where they could be endangered by pedophiles.
    The result is that most young boys have no idea that thier priest is a "real live" person heroically living out a vocation of service to God and His Church.

    Back when I was a kid (and I hate to start a paragraph with "back when I was a kid") Priests in cassocks were readily identifiable. They came to our homes to visit. They made appearances in our parochial school class rooms and on the playgrounds. They led us in saying prayers before lunch and participated in after school activities like sports and scouts. We knew and loved our priests (well, most of them---a few were rather nasty if I recollect correctly) but to us they were people---really cool men in fact.

    These days, for many kids, a priest is a guy in funny clothes on Sunday morning who, when not being boring is trying to compete with Spongebob Squarepants for entertainment value. If a child sees a priest outside of the Mass, it will likely be at a funeral where everyone is morose. How can those observations serve as an attraction to any boy?

    I think this is why many young men have a hard time taking vocations seriously enough to heed a gentle call. There simple is no opportunity for them to observe priests being genuine holy men on fire with the Holy Spirit.

  3. Terry Carroll8:47 AM

    In support of your observations, I would like to add that most men want to be inspired, to sense the potential for greatness, to be part of something worthy. Too many priests today give the impression that they don't believe in their own vocational greatness.

    The priesthood is not perceived as something to be admired, or even a potential source of happiness. Perhaps the "younger" priests are not so much this way, but "older" priests often are. This is discouraging. Who wants to aspire to a life that already appears sacrificial but doesn't even seem to offer happiness as compensation?

    Priests who appear enthusiastic about their own vocations are a great recruiting tool.

  4. Anonymous12:08 PM

    What might have been...

    Growing up even from my earliest years I always had a little voice coaxing me to a vocation. As I matured and still had this interest in the Priesthood, I constantly had doubts. Chiefly it was the way I saw Mass celebrated, very causally. The typical Mass complete with altar girls, lay lectors, EMHC, communion in the hand, et. al. In this setting with so much lay involvement in the liturgy the priest looked unnessary. (It is not my intention to offend people that fulfill those roles I know they derive great spiritual satisfaction from their participation)
    A few years later I attended my first Traditional Latin Mass. Instantly my feelings of my "calling" were awakened. The Mass was serious, reverant, & beautifull. In a nutshell it was very clear at that Mass what the role of the priest was and why we need them! No priests no Eurcharist.

  5. Matthew: I've been on the receiving end of that as well... and I know it can be a pain. I would just be firm but polite and say "Thank you, but I have discerned and I know my life calling. Please respect what I know God has called me to."

    Fr. PNP: I agree about Communion Services wholeheartedly. I don't know whose idea this was, but to have something that walks and talks like a Mass but is not a Mass is -=really=- a bad idea in most cases. I understand the need for something where Mass is not available on Sundays, but in parishes where you are surrounded by 2+ nearby parishes, not having anything and letting folks know there are other Masses nearby, or a Rosary, is perfectly fine.

    I think people have effectively separated the Sacrifice aspect from the Mass and just focus on Communion as the only reason one needs to go to Church.

  6. Anonymous2:54 PM

    Matthew, I think you would appreciate "The Helpful Catholic's Guide to Discerning Other People's Vocations For Them." David Alexander reproduced it here. Funny flow chart.

  7. Kevin S8:02 PM

    I would suggest people be very cautious about walking up to young men and encouraging them to consider a priestly vocation.

    In some cases, it can be a good idea - if you know the person really well and have a good relationship with them. But I suspect in many cases it simply puts un-needed pressure on those who are struggling to work out God's will for their lives.

    Many people who are discerning will want to keep their discernment private (at least until they have made a final decision) and do not find well-meaning but intrusive questions from strangers helpful.

  8. I would second, third, and fourth what Terry said. Priests who are on fire with God's love are awe-inspiring. We are blessed with three amazing priests at my university chaplaincy. It was their example that made me first consider looking into whether priesthood would be an option for me.

    I did look into it, and sadly it isn't, and neither is married life, and probably not religious life, either, which I had been (and still am) strongly drawn to. So it seems, at the moment, that my vocation may be to serving as a man in lay single life. But since I can't be a priest, it is my goal to be an encourager of priests, both the ones we already have, and those who are feeling a quiet stirring in their hearts about it. I currently serve my priests as a sacristan (and with the occasional meal invitation when they look like they could use a pick-me-up), and have been trying to encourage a couple friends my age (mid-20s) who are discerning priesthood. I think John and Terry above make a good point, in that priesthood is too often seen as out-dated, quaint, and smelling faintly of oppressive patriarchy. Whereas it really is a life of heroic service and self-giving in the image of Christ. I think the best encouragement I can give to my friends, and my priests, is to acknowledge that, and let them know that someone else shares their reverence and respect for the priesthood.

  9. romishgraffiti, that is hilarious! I'm definitely bookmarking that one.

  10. Anonymous1:42 PM

    The elephant in the room here is that the church refuses to recognize that a substantial source her priests at one time were gay men.

    I know this might shock some of the pious readers of this blog, but it is true.

    There was a time, not too long ago, that a young gay Catholic man, who was the least bit pious, and just a bit afraid of living out the true nature of his being, gave serious thought to the priesthood because his alternatives were far less attractive. By becoming a priest, a young gay man could do good things, could live his life unmarried, and in community among other men, and no one would ever question his choice. The alternative outside the priesthood invited constant scrutiny – and perhaps even scorn – from the straight world. The priesthood was a closet, but a very comfortable one.

    Today, that scrutiny and scorn no longer exist for most. That fact, coupled with the hierarchy's confused pogrom on homosexuals in the priesthood (because they seem unwilling to discern them from pedophiles), have resulted in far fewer men interested in the priesthood as a vocational choice.

  11. Anon., an overwhelming percentage of the males abused by priests were teens not children (upwards of 86%).

    These abusers were not pedophiles but homosexual ephebophiles--gay men who abused teenaged boys.

    Of course, only a tiny percentage of sexually active gay men abuse minors.

    Most sexual abuse in the general population is perpetrated against girls by their fathers, brothers, uncles, or close male friends.

    Personally, I think the Dallas Charter is a panicky overreaction that denies some of the gospel's most basic teachings about charity and forgiveness. The presumption of innocence for accused clergy is dead.

    At the same time, I've never been sexually abused nor do I have to worry about running a diocese.

    And I'm afraid that the Vatican's blanket instruction to exclude any man with same-sex attractions is only going to encourage lying and other dangerous closeted behavior. The instruction presumes the existence of a sure-fire means of testing for SSA. No such thing exists. So, either a potential seminarian tells the truth about his SSA and gets booted, or he lies and deals with the spiritual and emotional consequences. The other option is that he is not clear what his attractions are or has never acted on them so is unsure about them and spends his time in seminary riding a roller-coaster.