Monday, June 6, 2016

Why Priestly Vocations Matter

There is no way to really sugar coat this anymore.  We need priests.  We need them like we need air.  Why?  Because we need their leadership?  Because we need their teaching and preaching?  Because we need their prayers of intercession?  All good reasons, but no, not primarily.  We need them because we are a sacramental Church.  We need them because we need the Eucharist.  We need them because we need  confession.  We need them because we need to be able to have Last Rites.  In short, the primary need isn't what they stand to offer us, but what Christ offers through them.  Through them, Christ offers us...all of us...forgiveness and reconciliation.  This happens because upon the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders, a priest's soul is ontologically changed so that the priest may act in the person of Christ so that we can be forgiven by Christ and receive the eternal sacrifice of the Cross in the Eucharist.

We are not Pelagians.  We can not work ourselves into heaven.  We are in need of the unmerited grace of God to assist us in living as His adopted brother or sister.  God makes these realities concrete and sensible through the sacraments of the Church.  The priests have the responsibility to make these sacraments available to as many as possible.  Those who are appointed pastors have additional duties as well.  But any priest has the duty to make accessible the sacraments.  As the number of priests shrink the access to the sacraments shrink as well. Why?  Because as the number of priests fall, the number of churches shrink as well.  The more physical distance between the nearest priest and his widely scattered flock, the less likely that Last Rites can happen.  The lesser the number of priests, the more unlikely shut ins and hospital patients will get anointed as the priests will be stretched so thin as to leave wide open cracks for many to fall through.  These are just the harsh facts.

The Chickens are coming home to roost 

I will use my home diocese as an example.  My home diocese is 110 parishes and missions spread throughout 38 counties over 22,000 square miles.  6 of the counties have no priest residing in them.  34 parishes and missions have no resident priest. There are 87 priests active in the diocese (1/3 of which are not priests of this diocese) to serve the 80,000+ Catholics which make up less than 10% of the overall population.  Within 5 years 1/3 of the priests of this diocese will be 70+. WE already have a few priests who are well past the age of 75 still serving as pastors.  We have 7 seminarians spread throughout 8 years of seminary.  Only two of them are in college.  The chickens are coming home to roost.  It will not be pretty.

This diocese will be 60 years old this November.  It has never produced enough vocations to man its parishes.  Never.  Of the 61 active diocesan priests, 30 are not from this diocese.  Some of the most densely Catholic areas of the diocese have given us no priests in the 60 years of this diocese.  11 parishes in this one county (with 6 parochial schools) has not produced one single priests for this diocese since its inception.  Not one.  One was ordained for another diocese.  Otherwise, no.  There are no living priests that can call the parishes of this county their home parish.  There are no seminarians from this county and there have not been in years. While this county is not the sole cause of our problems, they provide a nice microcosm of the problem.  For the reader, 60 years predates Vatican II.

It does get personal...very personal

As a pastor, this does get very personal.  I think people wonder why I get into such a tither about vocations.  I do.  I have been trying for my entire priesthood to recruit good holy young men to think about the priesthood.  It is hard.  My perseverance gets tested on a regular basis.  There are days I really do wish that I could let it go and just give up and move on with vocation recruitment.  I could right a book on the different variations of no, not me, not my son that I have heard over the last 19 years.   I could write an encyclopedia load of conversations in which I bit my tongue clean off to hide my frustration.  One might well think me mad (the jury is still out) for continuing to do this.  Why do I do it?

1) I love Christ and His Church.  I love the people I serve as a pastor.  Part of that love is looking to the long term.  I know that in any parish I am serving that inevitably I will not always be their pastor. I want someone to replace pick up where I leave off.  I want my parish taken care off well for years to come.  I want my flock to have access to the sacraments in abundance.  I want them to be able to have those avenues of grace.  I want them to be able to grow in faith.  I will not always be there to do it.  They will need a father of the parish.  If the numbers decrease, the likelihood of this diminishes.  It pains me to think that some of them will not get Last Rites because the nearest priests will be a good hour drive away.

2) I believe we should be going in the opposite direction.  Regardless of population shifts, I do not think there is a parish in the diocese that shouldn't be expanding through evangelization.  If half of all Americans are unchurched, we should be reaching out for them.  There are millions of fallen away Catholics.  We should be reaching out for them as well. However, we are not congregationalists.  We are a sacramental church.  How on earth will be able to address greater sacramental need with fewer priests?  Our evangelical zeal for the truth of our Catholic faith should be filling the churches...we will need priests for this.

3) I love being a priest.  I do.  Yes, it is exhausting and frustrating at times, but it is so full of joy, that the moments of frustration are eclipsed by the good.  I can not help must take it personally when people act as my asking them to be a priest is an imposition on their happiness. It is hard not to get tedious when my joy is met with a boatload of melancholy feelings and bargaining.  What God has planned for us is not loathsome imposition to be bargained with like a auctioneer trying to drive down a bid.

Getting past the blame game

It seems that when this topic comes up, a blame game ensues.  Some want to blame bishops.  Some want to blame Vatican II or that Vatican II didn't go far enough.  Some want to blame things being too this or that.  Bottom line: ego non serviam.  I will not serve.  As a society we do not value serving, we value being served.  Serving is seen as an imposition.  Status comes in being served.  We want free stuff.  We want leisure.  We fixate on the eternally inconsequential (sports, gaming, celebrity, power, money) and lose sight of the eternally consequential (relationship with God, family, neighbor).  The eternally consequential is service oriented because its genus and end are the love of God.  The eternally inconsequential are all about personal achievement and self satisfaction.

We wait for pristine conditions for us to finally get our act together.  Perhaps, when nothing pans out, maybe we'll think about priesthood.  Times up though for so many places.  How long it lasts is up to whether we desire to serve or be served.  We need to quit looking for excuses and start finding obedience.  We need to quit telling God how to solve the problem and get about to listening to what He wants.

When the time comes for parishes to get closed, I will ask the complaining one question: When was the last time your parish gave the Church a vocation to the priesthood?  I have been to the Bishop's house many times.  He does not have a cabbage patch nor a secret lair where he is stockpiling priests and withholding them from us just to be obnoxious.  He can't send you priests if you don't send him priests.  Mark my words, we get what we give.  If your parish has not sent at least a solid young man to the seminary in decades: You.are.part.of.the.problem!  If your reaction to either you or your son to being asked to consider priesthood is one of scrambled bargaining or outright are writing checks that other people will have to cash.

In ending, many will say that' my diocese is a mess'. Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  But tell me what institution has ever been reformed from the outside?  If we are get the church the country back on the road to not just recovery, but thriving, then we must man up and get about the business of the kingdom.  We didn't get to the point we are by God's will, but by our disobedience to that will.  Make no mistake, that disobedience will be judged.  No more excuses.  No more bargaining.  We are a sacramental church and there is work to do, souls to save, and a society to transform.   Complaining does not make things better.  Let us get about doing what is bold, forthright, and holy!


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