e-mail us

Special Section: Religious Life

Speaking of vocations


I was recently invited to visit the parish where I grew up and attended parochial school. The pastor asked if I would come back to celebrate Mass and preach on vocations. At the time, it sounded like a good idea. After all, who would be more qualified to preach on vocations than the hometown boy who became a priest?

I told the pastor I would get back to him. As I thought about what I might say, I found myself reflecting less on why I became a priest and more on why anyone would want to become a priest in today’s church.

Surveys report that most priests are happy with their lives, yet the numbers willing to emulate us seem almost nonexistent. The next few paragraphs contain the results of my personal reflection on the subject -- which is, after all, a reflection of almost my entire adult life.

It seems to me that any talk of vocations to the priesthood must first explore two ideas. The first is, “What kind of church is one being ordained into today?” The second is, “What are some of the qualities needed for a man serving today’s church as a priest?”

As I observe the American Catholic church, I see two extremes. On the one hand are the so-called “conservatives” and “traditionalists.” These folk are uncomfortable with the reforms of Vatican II. Their goal, through movements such as Opus Dei, is to return their church to the “good old days.”

Basic to this model is the demand that the priest return to his rightful place as the sole decision-maker, authority figure and “persona Christi” in the parish. The consensus seems to be that Father not only needs to “look like a priest,” he needs to go back to “acting like a priest.” Since many priests do not willingly cooperate, and the Holy Father does not seem to act quickly enough to rein them in, many disenchanted traditionalists have either left the church to join a fringe group or are withholding their donations.

On the other extreme are the “liberals” or “progressives.” These folk believe the reforms of Vatican II aren’t being implemented to their satisfaction. They describe the hierarchy as “dragging its feet” (or its crosiers!) in the areas of collegiality, empowerment of the laity and especially women, and shared responsibility among all members of the church. They’re concerned that some of the great theologians and thinkers of this century have been silenced by Rome. Furthermore, they are distressed that issues such as social justice and ecumenism seem to have disappeared into offices in the chancery, leaving no agenda and little enthusiasm for either topic.

Many of these Catholics are likewise leaving the church or withholding their support.

What’s left? In my estimation, it’s the largest group of Catholics, those not driven by ideological issues and whose commitment to the church is often lukewarm. Their financial support, or lack of it, gives witness to this reality.

This group’s only concern is that Father is there to meet their needs, whenever they want him day or night. This group is not particularly interested in whether Father is conservative, traditional, liberal, progressive or embraces New Age thinking. For them, a priest is a priest. They don’t care if Father is straight, gay, or asexual, although most would probably prefer the last. They don’t care if Father graduated cum laude from seminary or if he was on academic probation during his entire formation. A priest is a priest.

The majority of Catholics really don’t seem to require a great deal from priests. If Father preaches well, that’s fine. If he doesn’t, they still look at him with polite interest and give him credit for trying. If Father is a good administrator or fundraiser, he will receive the respect of some of his flock while others will criticize him. If he is a prayerful man of God, some will see him as a mystic while others will dismiss him as aloof.

A man considering ordination in today’s church can easily conclude he’s being ordained into a church that lacks leadership and vision. It is no secret that in the last 15 years, bishops have slowly lost their power to Rome. Instead of holding their ground, bishops have turned to micromanaging their dioceses, and many priests have felt the pressure from “on high.” The true visionaries have been replaced with individuals solely interested in “processing the vision.” This translates into endless meetings. The logic seems to be that as long as planning meetings are going on, something is happening.

A prospective priest also has to be aware that he is casting his lot with an institution in financial trouble. Since many Catholics are withholding donations and the rest do not give generously because of a lack of commitment, the church is slowly being bankrupted by the “silent majority” who give little or nothing in the Sunday offertory (if they even bother to attend Mass), yet expect to have all their needs met.

A man considering ordination surely will have been told by priests who are friends that he’s considering a life that’s not very affirming. Bishops simply do not affirm priests (they were apparently never taught to do it). The laity will affirm priests so long as their individual needs are being met. There is so much variety among the laity, however, that a priest would have to be superhuman to please them all.

There are a few organizations within the church that affirm priests. The Serra Club and the Knights of Columbus come to mind. For many of us, however, their affirmation often rings hollow, because some members of these organizations don’t know who we really are. They are merely affirming our Roman collars.

On the other hand, a priest can be assured he will be affirmed at his own funeral. The bishop will wax eloquent about “what a hard worker Father was,” how grateful people are for the endless programs he ran, what a great builder he was (assuming he managed to build or remodel something). The sad part is that Father will be affirmed for the many things he did, never for who he was.

Another daunting point to consider is that most priests today will become pastors long before they are ready. Bowing under the combined pressure of fewer new priests and the swelling ranks of retirees, bishops are awarding pastorates to men ordained for only four or five years.

These inexperienced individuals are being sent either to open a new parish, maintain an existing facility, or, in certain dioceses, to preside over the closing of a long-established and beloved community. In addition, the majority of these inexperienced pastors will inherit professional staff members who are a great deal more mature, knowledgeable and experienced.

Given the state of the church and the manner in which priests are treated, what is the relevant starting point for a man wanting to serve as a priest?

In my opinion, it boils down to a very basic question: Who do you want to serve -- the institution or the people of God? Make no mistake, they are not one and the same.

When I was in the seminary, a professor once said to us as young deacons: “Gentlemen, decide right now if you want to be a bishop. You need to understand that everything you do as a priest will be determined by that decision.” I have learned over the years that he was a wise man. A person thinking about serving the church today needs to answer the same question.

If a person feels he has a calling to serve the church as institution because he is enthralled by its power, its vastness, its magnificent cathedrals or even because he likes the feel of silk, that man needs to think again. If he is drawn to the pope because he is always right and all one has to do is echo his words, he needs to think again.

If he is attracted by the need for personal security received from knowing he will always be provided for, then he needs to think again. If he sees the institution giving him credibility or the ability to pray, love or forgive in a manner superior to that of mere mortals, then I would discourage him from pursuing a vocation. In my opinion, he has simply confused a vocation with a lifestyle.

On the other hand, if an individual comes to me feeling that he has a calling to serve the church (the people of God) because he has been touched by the hand of God and has experienced personal conversion, then I am apt to listen to him. If that man sees God not only present in him now but moving him out of his comfort zone into the place where God wants him to be, then I am apt to listen to him.

Most important perhaps, I will find credible a person who believes that he does not need to be a priest in order to be validated. He simply sees priesthood as the best way for him to live out his calling to serve. I will take time to speak with this person, to encourage him to discern his vocation.

A priest who draws his strength not from the institution but from Jesus will be indifferent to whether those being served are “conservative,” “traditionalist,” “liberal” or “progressive.” The priest understands that no matter what, the person is seeking to experience God somewhere in his or her life. He sees a part of himself in every one of them. As a priest, he will pastor a parish that is not exclusive, not one where only those who agree with his theology will be welcome. This priest will pastor a parish where all are welcome.

The priest whom I describe will draw his strength from the person of Jesus Christ alone. He will recognize not only the fragility in other people, but he will also be attentive to his own. He will be in touch with his occasional lack of commitment and indifference. If a priest draws from the strength of Jesus Christ, he will realize and believe that, in the end, true faith is not so much about what he does as about what God does.

Such a priest will be at peace with the apparent lack of leadership and vision from the bishops, including perhaps his own. He will accept the fact that bishops are called up from among the ranks of his priest brothers. He will realize that he cannot change his bishop, but he can examine his own leadership style and hold himself accountable for the vision that he promotes in the community. He will see how easily people can accuse him of the very “sins” he attributes to his bishop. He will appreciate that his own situation is not all that different from that of his bishop: Both positions are constantly being redefined, and the final job description is still to be determined.

Such a priest will recognize the shortage of priests in his diocese but will not allow it to lead him to accept a pastorate before he is ready. If he is forced into it, he will respond with humility and accept the truth that while he may be the pastor, his professional staff can teach him much.

If we are not attracting more people into the priesthood, maybe it is because we are looking for the wrong qualities, or we are asking the wrong questions.

I must remember to call Father back and accept his invitation to celebrate Mass at my old parish -- and, yes, to preach on vocations.

Fr. Larry Weidner is pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Phoenix. He has been ordained for 18 years and is a former member of the Diocesan Vocations Board.

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999