There is an elephant in the room in the West that we discuss from time-to-time and then promptly ignore. It is the priestly vocations crisis that is no longer looming on the horizon, but is here now. Many dioceses in the United States are struggling to foster priestly vocations. The rate of new priests being ordained cannot keep up with the number of priests retiring. In my diocese we ordained one new priest this year while four retired. This rate is unsustainable.
The answer is often that we will bring in foreign priests to make up for the deficits. These priests are a true blessing to the West. They are holy, dedicated, orthodox, humble, and loving fathers. The more priests I meet from Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, and other African nations, the more I understand why Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said ‘Africa will re-evangelize the West.’ These are dedicated priests from countries where the priesthood is loved, respected, and encouraged. These are priests who know poverty and violence, but who bring a deep peace, stillness, and joy that is lacking in the fast-paced lives of Westerners.
This cannot be the whole solution, however. Partly because tense political battles on immigration policy are making it difficult for some foreign priests to stay or enter the United States, but also because the lack of priestly vocations is a sign of the spiritual life of the Church. If the priesthood is not seen as a valuable and serious calling it is because there is a disconnect between how we discern our path in life versus what we want in life. It is a sign that we no longer view the spiritual life and the Sacraments as the single most important things in this life. Instead, we view our lives as something that is self-made and in accordance with our own designs. We want the world, not Christ. Our vocation whether to marriage, religious life, or the priesthood is ultimately a calling from God that we answer.
This blame can neither be placed fully on the laity or the priesthood. There is plenty of blame to go around. One of the single greatest obstacles to priestly vocations is the fact that the vast majority of Catholic parents discourage their sons from becoming priests. Why? Largely for worldly reasons that have very little to do with God’s will for their child. They want grandchildren. This is a great good, but it is not the highest good and in this case ends up being selfish if it keeps a man from following God. Our children belong to God.
Parents raise their sons to value a good career and making lots of money over the call to serve as a priest. Once again this places the things of this world above the calling God places in men’s hearts. Make no mistake, God is calling men to the priesthood right now, but that call is going unheeded because there aren’t people in that man’s life to help him answer that call. In fact, he very well may be discouraged from becoming a priest by those closest to him.
The laity must undergo a radical conversion of heart and come to understand that this life is not about us. We are not called to do whatever we want to do or to blindly seek after the riches and successes of this life. What matters is what God is calling us to do, and for many more men than we are seeing ordained, that means a life as a priest. We must set aside our desires for grandchildren and successful children in order to seek the will of God for our children.
If we do not seek God’s will over our own for our children we very well may lead them down the wrong path to an unfulfilled life and unhappiness. Our ultimate happiness can only be found by leading the life God calls us to live. If we live opposed to His will then we will not be able to enter into the true joy and peace we are made for.
What many parents do not understand is that God has given their sons hearts capable of loving thousands of spiritual sons and daughters over and above biological children. Their hearts are so broad and open that they are capable of a truly expansive love. Parents should rejoice that God placed such loving hearts within their sons. Men who want to love and serve God above all else by being crucified with Him for the salvation of his spiritual sons and daughters is a great gift.
Grandchildren and a successful career pale in comparison to the tremendous, awe-inspiring gift God gives to His priests to confect the Holy Eucharist in their broken, weak hands. There is no honor the world can give that can supersede this tremendous supernatural gift. We must learn to re-align our vision away from the world’s to God’s in order to understand that there is nothing in this world that compares to the gifts given to priests, which should lead parents to rejoice if the Eternal High Priest calls their son to be a priest.
Natural children are a tremendous gift that God gives to parents, but the spiritual fatherhood of a priest is higher in the supernatural order because though Baptism he brings spiritual sons and daughters into the life of grace, the Church, and the promises of eternal life. Natural parents cannot draw their children into the life of grace and spiritually feed their own children in the Sacraments. Only priests can fulfill this role.
There are also very serious reasons why men are struggling with answering the call to the priesthood that go beyond the lures of the world. The clergy sex abuse scandals are a major factor, but one that is seldom discussed is the fact that too many men see a priesthood that is more like a business or bureaucracy rather than men with a dramatic call to save souls. Men follow heroism and the call to lay down their life for Christ. Men are not going to lay down their lives to be businessmen in a Roman collar. Good for them for recognizing this counterfeit. That is not what the priesthood is called to be.
This is a justified concern. Why should any young man (or old man) lay down family life, freedom, and a successful career as a layman if he is going to essentially live that life in a sterile manner as a priest? A bureaucratic or business like priesthood is in fact a sterile priesthood because it cannot bear abundant spiritual fruit. This is unfortunately what many young men are seeing and many seminarians are experiencing, which is part of the reason men are not becoming priests. Even so, we need men who are willing to become priests regardless and to fight the good fight by living a heroic priesthood.
This problem is exacerbated by how many priests are not seeking to foster vocations in the young men in the pews. It’s seldom talked about with the exception of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. This passive approach leaves it to young men to come to them. This makes no sense since every priest or seminarian I have talked to about their calling has been greatly influenced by priests, religious, and members of the laity God used to draw them to the priesthood. Priestly vocations are rarely discovered in isolation. They need the encouragement of faithful priests. They need spiritual fathers who love their priesthood and who want to help men discover their calling to the priesthood. Men by their nature need and thrive under good mentoring.
Young men want to see a heroic priesthood. Men who are sacrificial, dedicated, in love with the Blessed Sacrament, reverent at the altar, Marian, prayerful, bold preachers, spiritual fathers, and willing to lay down their lives for Christ and His flock. This is the kind if priesthood men will line up to join. A crucified priesthood leads young men to abandon the goods of the world to follow God to the very end.
No, this kind of life isn’t filled with worldly glory. The abundant riches of a priestly life will not be fully realized until the next life. It is often a thankless calling where the vast majority of a priest’s spiritual sons and daughters do not truly understand the sacrifice he has made for them, but that isn’t the point. St. John Vianney rightly said: “A priest is not a priest for himself.” The priesthood is not about the individual priest. It is the love of God and the love for souls that compels a man to surrender His entire being to God. It is the great adventure of the Cross with the hope of the Resurrection that guides Him in leading souls to heaven.
We need to ask ourselves very serious questions in the West. Why are men not coming to the priesthood? Where are we failing to answer God’s call and where do we need to repent and be converted? Do we understand that this life is not about us? Do we understand the tremendous gift that is the priesthood? There needs to be a very serious examination of conscience and conversion of heart on all of our parts if we want to see greater vocations to the priesthood before we reach a total crisis. Now is the time to act. Now is the time for families and priests to encourage men to answer God’s call to save souls through a life of heroic sacrifice on behalf of others in the priesthood.