My diocese, like many in the US, is undergoing a serious shortage of priests. The problem is particularly acute here because Catholics are only a tiny percentage of the population, and the diocese is geographically large. Oftentimes one overworked pastor in his 60s or 70s is driving around to 3 or 4 far-flung churches on a weekend to say Mass. I know I have been very, very lucky while I lived in this state to always be in a place where Mass was available every weekend. Even during Fr. Jerry's illness, before Fr. John came to Starkville, the Bishop kindly sent priests up from Jackson so we could have Mass every weekend. Other churches have to make do with much less.
There has been a series of articles in the diocesan paper about the bishop's proposed solutions, which include appointing lay ecclesial ministers to lead communion services at the rural churches. While many people are unhappy at these changes, I think the bishop is acting prudently overall. Unfortunately much ink has been spilled in letters to the editor about how the Catholic Church should allow married priests. Fortunately, there's been no call for "womenpriests" which shows our good people haven't entirely gone off the deep end. But I feel there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the vocations crisis here. A college classmate of mine of mine who is currently in the seminary wrote this letter last week: "May I make the proposition that our current "crisis" is not one of a lack of religious vocations but is instead a lack of understanding and respect for the sacrament of holy matrimony, as is set out in sacred Scripture, the catechism, and Vatican II, to name only a few places. Am I correct in saying if we were to promote a better view of the sacrament of holy matrimony, beginning at home, then we might have more priests and religious in our diocese?"
My answer to my friend is: YES! Undoubtedly the breakdown of marriage contributes to a lack of priestly vocations. The home is the "domestic Church." Fr. Lenin in his homily last Sunday pointed out that priests do not grow on trees. Priests come from strong Catholic homes with a good mother and father. The challenge to us laypeople called to the married life is to build the kind of homes that nurture future priests and religious. That is a HUGE challenge in today's world, which leads me to my next point.
It seems like the writers all these letters see abolishing priestly celibacy as a "quick fix" solution. They seemingly envision a world in which thousands of married men would stampede to the seminaries once Rome lifted the rule of priestly celibacy. I don't see it that way. The big challenge to vocations today is the "me-centered" approach to life. It is all about ME, and what I want in life. God's will is only something for me to pay attention to when it happens to coincide with mine. This is not the kind of attitude that breeds a lot of priestly vocations. This is also not an attitude that fosters strong marriages! We forget we are called to give everything to God, to give Jesus nothing less than our whole lives. It is easy to relate this total self-giving to the priestly vocation. We must not forget that total self-giving is the call of married people too!
One can see that marriage and the priesthood are two distinct vacations. Could a person follow both? I really think it would be exceedingly difficult for a man to do both jobs well. A priest belongs to his parishioners and they to him. They are his spiritual children, the souls for whom he has responsibility. Not only does he administer the Sacraments, he must be teacher, father, and friend to all. He must respond with love to the mean-spirited and firmly correct the rebellious. He must be there for them at all hours of the day or night. He may have days off, but he never stops being a priest. And in addition to this, he must not neglect his own spiritual life, and must faithfully pray his Daily Office. Whew!
The job of a husband and father is equally all-consuming. Surely we remember from our childhoods how "Daddy is the strongest man in the world." In some sense, he always is. A good husband pursues honest work to provide for his children. He is also teacher, father and friend to his little flock. He is the head of his domestic Church. His model is St. Joseph, the protector of the Virgin and the Child Jesus. In addition to the duties of his life in the world, he has duties in the home. He teaches his children how to pray. He is a tender and gallant lover to his wife. That is really a lot to live up to!
The Sacrament of Holy Orders makes an indelible mark on a priest's soul. Because he has been made a priest, he has been changed. So too with the man who receives the Sacrament of Matrimony - he has been changed. Both have been given the graces needed to live out their vocations. Both husband and priest must be willing to give all of themselves to their vocation. Divided hearts can never be fully given. Protestant ministers are usually married, but many of them can tell you it is very difficult to juggle the obligations of a family with the obligations of ministry. The Catholic priesthood is quite different from Protestant ministry as well. They share some of the same duties, true, but the names say it all. A priest is not the same thing as a minister and cannot be treated as such. Again, priesthood is not a day job, but something that a man IS.
We should avoid looking on our priests as "Sacrament dispensing machines" or looking on priesthood as being just another job that they do. That does them no favors. We have to recognize the need for them to give themselves over wholeheartedly. To say that celibacy is too difficult for men to handle is a slap in the face to the men in the seminary who have chosen it freely. We have to remember that married life can be equally difficult and challenging. At the same time, marriage is very good. If marriage were not good, celibacy would not be the beautiful sacrifice that it is. What kind of person would offer God something that was bad or inferior? Instead we always offer him the most precious things we have.
I would never choose a man for marriage who was half-hearted about marrying me! In the same way, I don't want a priest who is afraid to make sacrifices. Let him serve the Church in some other way, if he can. But what this Church needs is strong, faithful priests - not priests who waver, or priests who are unwilling to give Christ all.
Saying "just let them marry" does not strike at the root of the problem - a culture and home life that does not breed vocations. I believe we must do two things to see real results. The first is - pray for vocations. The second is - catechize our children. Are married couples living out their vocation as beautiful examples for their children? Are they teaching their children about the Catholic Faith? Are Catholic school and parish religious education programs faithful to Catholic doctrine, or are they stuffing the children full of meaningless feel-good fluff? It is disturbing to me how many people spend years in religious education classes without learning anything of substance. People who do not understand the basic tenets of their faith are hardly likely to enter the priesthood or religious life.
At the bottom of it all is this: We are called to be the Salt of the Earth, as Pope Benedict so beautifully reminded us in his sermon at Yankee Stadium. We must bring Christ to the world. Priests do not grow on trees, it's true. But I believe that the lives of married people, lived vibrantly for Christ, can nurture the seeds of a priestly vocation in their sons. This is the responsibility each one of us bears. I know it's one I can only live up to with the help of the Holy Spirit.
"But we need priests NOW!" Yes. There is no denying this. There is absolutely no glossing over the hardship and the hunger for the Eucharist experienced by so many in this state. Our foreign-born priests are a blessing in this. Of course we would all like to see more native-born priests, but the Irish priests have a long history in this diocese. I feel the priests from Mexico are a real blessing and have so much to teach us. The Bishop is making efforts to recruit more seminarians for the Diocese from Mexico with the help of Fr. Lenin, and I think this is commendable.
Oftentimes it is hard to pray and wait. If the rule of priestly celibacy is ever to be changed, I trust the Pope and bishops to act with the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the betterment of the Church. In the meantime, we should go to the source to solve the vocations issue, instead of rushing to implement a "solution" that may not turn out to be a solution at all.