For decades the Church has talked about the shortage of priests that continues to worsen in the West as the majority of priests head towards retirement age. We pray for vocations to the priesthood. We hear talks from visiting seminarians about their call to enter seminary. As if as an afterthought, we are reminded by our local parishes that we need to encourage vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life within our families. And yet, we find ourselves with a growing shortage of priests, even with the modest increases and high caliber seminarians studying at present.
As with the majority of crises plaguing the Church, the primary problem in fostering vocations to the priesthood comes down to our loss of supernatural vision, as well as to an utter abandonment of the hierarchical nature of reality. We want everything to be equal and fair, even though God does not call people equally or fairly. He calls us as He has made each one of us, for the purpose He has given to each one of us, for His greater glory, the salvation of souls, and our own sanctification. He is the One Who made us and He is the One Who knows how we best become the saints He has made us to become in order to dwell with Him for all eternity.
The Church has also been infected with the materialism of our age, which has decimated the supernatural vision of the people of God. This is not the type of materialism where we buy too much at the store. This is the philosophical system whereby everything in existence can be reduced to the natural or material world. As a result, vast majority of Catholics have fallen into a reductionist mentality whereby we view the goods of this life as the ultimate goods thereby ignoring supernatural or spiritual goods.
In reality, spiritual goods are higher because they come from the supernatural order. As an example, the soul is higher than the body even though we are body and soul. It is the soul that is the form of the body, that is, it gives life to the body. It is our rational, immortal souls that lead us towards heaven, united to our bodies as the individual persons we are created by God.
With this in mind, we can come to understand that—contrary to our culture—the spiritual fatherhood of priests is actually higher than natural fatherhood. We don’t think so because we assume that marriage and family life are superior. Both vocations are essential and both are paths to heaven, but spiritual fatherhood supersedes natural fatherhood in that it is priests who draw people into the life of grace in Baptism and who teach, govern, and sanctify the people of God. Their emphasis is on the soul and the spiritual life.
Priests, by virtue of their sacred office instituted by Christ, make the path to eternal life possible in the life of the Church. They are a sign to the world that this is not our ultimate home. Their calling is to make us a holy people, to call us to be saints. This they achieve by preaching the Word of God, providing the ordinary means of grace in the Sacraments that allow us to make the journey to God, and most especially, by making present the Holy Eucharist. They give up everything to follow Christ and to minister to His people.
The priest is a gift of the Heart of Christ: a gift for the Church and for the world. From the Heart of the Son of God, brimming with love, flow all the goods of the Church. From it originates, in particular, the vocation of those men who, won over by the Lord Jesus, leave all things to devote themselves without reserve to the service of the Christian people, after the example of the Good Shepherd.Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Angelus Message of June 13, 2010.
Understandably, Vatican II sought to emphasize the universal call to holiness, in order to correct the erroneous belief put forward by some members of the Church that perfection in charity and true sanctity could only be achieved by priests and religious. All people are called to holiness regardless of state in life. Unfortunately, an over-emphasis on married life entered into the Church and we are still in the process of trying to return to a balanced understanding of the vocations God calls His people to live out in order to achieve their eschatological end.
Married life and the begetting of children is, of course, one of these paths. It is a gift from God for the spouses and children (if possible) which is a reflection of the love of the Most Holy Trinity. It is also the most common vocation given to people in this life. However, problems arise when we place an inordinate emphasis on romantic love and the call to marriage, an error which is so prevalent in our culture today. Erroneously, many people are drawn into the belief that the greatest good to be achieved in this life is romantic love. This is to turn romantic love into a false idol, since the greatest love is love of God. Priests serve as a sign of this truth to the Church and the world.
It is understandable that mothers and fathers want to experience the joy of grandchildren and want to see their sons become natural fathers. Grandchildren are a tremendous gift, but there are certain souls who are asked to give up everything in this life for Christ and the salvation of others. The priesthood is a tangible sign of the love of Christ Crucified through a total surrender of self to God. This is why priests relinquish family life and seek to be configured to Christ more closely.
Their reward for answering this call is to become spiritual fathers to countless souls and to be given the single greatest gift in this life: to confect the Holy Eucharist. Yes, grandchildren are a beautiful gift, but a priest is able to bring forth the Holy Eucharist, Who is Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. Parents should see this calling as a reflection of God’s profound love for their sons.
If we want to see more vocations to the priesthood and religious life, then we must lead our children to understand that spiritual realities are greater than any of the goods in the material realm. If Catholic families could come to this deeper understanding, and seek to live the supernatural vision of faith we have been given by God, then we would be able to help solve the vocations crisis almost overnight.
The problem is not that God has stopped calling men to the priesthood. The problem is we have stopped listening. One of the single greatest obstacles to more priests is the fact that the majority of Catholic families are opposed or even hostile to the thought of one of their sons becoming a priest. That means there is very little discernment on the part of the vast majority of young men sitting in the pews.
In light of the scandals, the reticence on the part of many parents is understandable, but the fact of the matter is, we need good holy men who are willing to become priests in order to help clean up the mess and bring renewal to a priesthood in crisis. If we live from this position of fear and refuse to let our children go where God is calling them, then we are standing in the way of the change that is needed to heal the deep wounds within the Church.
The laity has an essential part to play in the renewal of the priesthood and vocations crisis, but before we can truly be agents of change, we must be willing to allow God to work as He chooses to work. We must seek to see the goods of the spiritual life as much higher than the material goods of this life. The material goods of this life are meant to be appreciated and enjoyed as gifts from God, but they are not to be seen as our ultimate good, which can only be found in Christ. True happiness can only be found on the path to holiness. The Church and the world need holy priests to lead us on that path.
If we come to see with the eyes of faith then we will understand the tremendous gift given to priests to lead souls to the Most Holy Trinity and to confect the Holy Eucharist in order to nourish the people of God with Christ’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. There is nothing higher in this life, and no greater joy for a parent whose son is called to the priesthood for the salvation of souls and the whole Church.
Let everyone be struck with fear, let the whole world tremble, and let the heavens exult, when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest. Oh stupendous dignity! O humble sublimity, that the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under an ordinary piece of bread.St. Francis of Assisi