e-mail us

Religious Life

Plea for vocations is like praying for rain in a deluge


For 28 years I’ve been listening to vocation talks. The first one, from a bishop I still admire very much, set up a conflict within me that has no resolution. He was speaking of the priestly life, of the service to people when they are most vulnerable to the Word of God; of the privilege of anointing, absolving, offering them the Eucharist. At some point during his talk, he asked the question: “Is there no one in this room who wants to spend their life this way?”

For the moment I forgot who I was. My heart leaped within me, and I almost jumped up. At the same moment I remembered that he was not really speaking to me and I settled inside, a bit dashed, a bit embarrassed. But my heart has never stopped burning.

I feel so blest that even without holy orders, I have been privileged to do priestly work. And now I’m at an age when ordination does not interest me, though I am saddened at the poverty I could help alleviate, both for my priest friends who are struggling and for the people we serve together. Now as I listen to these vocation talks, I find myself ticking off the predictable elements, waiting -- so far in vain -- for the suggestion that the so-called “vocation crisis” just might be inspired opportunity.

One element of the standard vocation talk is that the responsibility for the lack of vocations lies first with the laypeople of the church, especially parents. Tales are told of angry mothers, threatening to disown their sons if they enter the seminary. According to a study quoted in the most recent talk I heard, 75 percent of parents would discourage their sons from considering the priesthood. If it’s true, it’s an astounding figure.

But why? I asked several mothers in my parish, and they admitted that they wouldn’t want their sons to be priests because, “It seems such an unhealthy, unhappy life, and priests become so selfish and self-centered.” That’s a quote from a woman who is a faithful, church-going, decidedly non-feminist, 40-hours-devotion-keeping, rosary-saying grandma! Even with that 75 percent statistic, it seems to me, as a mother of three sons and as a friend of many parents, that children seldom follow their parents’ desires about their future. Not to be glib, but there are more men in prison than in Catholic seminaries, and no parent wants their child to end up behind bars.

Another explanation offered for the vocation crisis is that priests are no longer accorded the respect of former days. Here the much-publicized scandals -- pedophilia, embezzling, priests with AIDS, priests abusing religious women in Africa -- enter the picture. But if lack of respect is a primary factor, would there be so many lawyers and politicians? There are more lawyer jokes than priest jokes, more embarrassing headlines concerning politicians; and yet the law schools aren’t scrounging for students, nor is there a dearth of candidates for most elected offices.

Sometimes it is suggested that our culture is less religious than it used to be, more materialistic. This may be true, though parishes report active catechumenate programs and folks will even endure the difficult annulment process to be in full communion within the Catholic church. At the same time, perhaps the priests and ministers of the more mainline churches have been unable to provide answers to the longing that is evidenced by the culture’s preoccupation with “spirituality.” This “Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul” phenomenon is a decade old with thousands of books, public television specials and radio talk shows on the subject of spirituality. Folks are certainly looking for something.

As to materialism, a diocesan priest will not earn a great deal of money of his own, but he does not take a vow of poverty. If he comes from wealth he will enjoy his share of the family’s assets. And if he comes from the poorer classes, he will certainly live better than his working-class parents. I’ve met few priests who live as simply as their lay colleagues in ministry or teachers in a parish grade school, and many are better off than the majority of their parishioners.

Perhaps the reason the seminaries are nearly empty is the fear of celibacy, yet most young men have known more unhappy marriages than unhappy priests. Despite the divorce statistics, people keep getting married, even those who have failed at it once or twice!

More likely than the fear of celibacy is the apparent disingenuousness of the demand. If celibacy is addressed at all in the standard vocation talk, it usually is explained that the priest must be available to his congregation 24/7, and that would be unfair to a wife and children. Have these men never met a Protestant pastor, or for that matter a social worker, emergency room doctor, psychiatrist, teacher or anyone in the service professions? And do they imagine that one overworked bachelor priest is worth five or 10 or 15 ministers empowered to share the duties of responding to the needs of their parishioners?

No concern of Jesus

To most laypeople, the demand of celibacy seems more an issue of power and control than holiness and commitment. They don’t believe that celibacy is necessary or intrinsic to priesthood. Rather, to these folks it appears that the absoluteness of the connection between celibacy and priesthood is not found in the scriptures, was not something Jesus was concerned about and therefore, a human-made condition and one subject to change.

The current approach to the vocation crisis seems to be one of “a chicken in every pot.” Put a priest in a parish the size of a small town and everything is taken care of. Never mind how big the pot or how many it’s supposed to feed or how scrawny, old or diseased the chicken is. So often we concentrate on Eucharist. Yes, one priest can consecrate for thousands. But what about the other priestly work?

What about the anointing, counseling and caring that take time, attention and energy. Must we insist on such a difference between the sacraments and living a sacramental life? One who comforts the sick can anoint. One who teaches can preach. One who offers counsel can reconcile. One who can lead prayer can consecrate.

My parish community in a relatively small town in the Midwest would be served well by 15 sacramental ministers -- some married, some single, some vowed to celibacy; some permanently in residence, some temporarily assigned; some men, some women; some part-time, some full-time -- all under the authority of the bishop and the pastor appointed by the bishop. Is this such a crazy vision? Crazier than what we’re dealing with now?

The vocation talk often includes strong assertions about the difference between the ordained and nonordained minister. Most lay folks know the difference and value that difference. That difference has to do with the sacraments. It is astounding that so many Catholics, some of them with very sophisticated tastes in art, music, theater and literature, will endure a wasteland of ugly liturgies in ugly church buildings. They will excuse the most banal, uninspiring homilies and overlook the most obvious inconsistencies. They will forgive the most uncivil behavior -- all in order to keep their churches open and receive the sacraments.

What they don’t believe is that the “vocation crisis” is necessary.

How can there be a “vocation crisis” when there is overwhelming evidence that people are called and that those who are called are responding. There are lay folks in graduate schools of ministry, paying for their own degrees while they raise their families and work for their parishes. Tragically for the life of the church, those who have the office to affirm that call and generous response are not listening. And why?

Because many who are called are women or men who are committed to women.

Except for this one fact -- being a woman or a man married to one -- there is every evidence of the traditional vocation: burning desire, willingness to sacrifice, the gifts needed to minister and even minister extraordinarily, with awe-inspiring dedication and pastoral imagination. The efforts of these men and women bear great fruit. Some who minister in parishes, hospitals and schools are so obviously more inspired than their clerical colleagues and bosses that it is awkward and embarrassing.

Letting the people starve

There is a story I first heard from my pastor. It’s the story of the old man who aspires to be a painter and shows samples of his work to a great artist. The great artist gently tells the old man that he has no talent. The old man accepts his assessment, but begs him to view another set of drawings, produced by a young student. These the great artist pronounces full of promise and excitedly asks, “Whose work is this? Is it your son?” And the old man sadly admits that the promising young student was once himself, but he became discouraged and gave it up. “If only,” said the old man, “If only I had received your encouragement when I was young.”

Who are they, these promising ministers we are neglecting to encourage? Shamefully, we may never know what potential we are wasting. Wasting talent is a sin. So is wasting other people’s money.

Laypeople give generously to the annual diocesan appeals and the special stewardship promotions with slick videos and brochures complete with the smiling faces of a black child, an elderly, habited nun, a young, vibrant priest and so on. A disproportionate amount of this money goes to the seminary. In our archdiocese of about 250 parishes, we have fewer than 50 men in nine years of seminary. It’s probably generous to predict that 25 will be ordained -- over nine years! Yet the amount of money per student that goes to the seminary is enormous compared to the amount per student that goes to the high schools and grade schools. And the small fund that was once used for the education of lay ministers has disappeared.

And those 25 men who might make it to ordination? The most capable of them will not be assigned to parishes where they are so needed. They will be sent to study canon law and reserved for ministering to their own -- teaching in seminaries, working in the vocation office, serving on the bishop’s staff. Continuing to use so much of the people’s money for so few to serve them seems like questionable stewardship and an irresponsible disregard of the people’s trust.

There is a crisis of credibility with our religious leaders. In the last 35 years, the laypeople of the church have come to perceive themselves differently: as more worthy to live the life of the church, read the scriptures, participate in the sacraments, minister to others. By the light of their own worthiness, they see more clearly the faults of their leaders. They are coming to know that many with the office to pastor, preach, comfort, counsel, absolve and anoint do not really have the charism. And likewise, they have benefited from the ministry of those without the office who are clearly inspired.

If we believe what we teach about the sacraments being necessary for life, then we are letting the people starve to death. We are closing their church homes, sending them into exile to mega-churches where community is impossible, and we threaten not to stop until the people agree to sacrifice their sons and keep their daughters quiet. Well, people aren’t going to do that. They will leave first and take their sons and daughters with them.

When I am asked to pray for vocations my (silent) response is always the same: “To pray for rain in the middle of a thunderstorm is either unobservant or ungrateful.” We are flooded with those answering the call to ministry. We simply don’t recognize them. My prayer is that we open our hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit, our eyes and ears and arms to all those who are called to minister to God’s people.

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2002