Year for Priests: One small plan to encourage vocations

By Father Kenneth J. Doyle
One in a series

Our modest-sized Diocese of Albany, N.Y., is in the middle of a transformation.  Within the next two years, 33 churches will merge or close, about 20 percent of our worship sites.

One of the reasons is the outward migration of Catholics, from the cities to the suburbs.  The other — and more compelling — factor is the decline in the number of priests.  In the planning for these changes, our study group (“cluster”) was made up of five parishes, all well-established city parishes with long and storied histories.  When I was ordained, in 1966, these five parishes were served by 14 full-time priests.

As of the fall of this year, these same five parishes will have only two priests.  The consolidation plan calls for four of these parishes to merge into two and the fifth to be served by a part-time priest as a sacramental minister.

The situation begs the question, “What happened?”  Why, when seminaries were bulging at the seams in the 1960s, are they somewhat-suddenly empty?  What has changed since then?

Theories abound:  there is the increasing secularization of culture, a growing grasp for material security.  There is the current unpopularity of any long-term commitments, marriage being the first example.  There is the shame that came to the priesthood over the tragedy of sexual abuse of children (although, to be fair, the decline in priestly vocations long antedated the exposure of that reprehensible behavior).

I believe, though, that the single most significant factor is this:  priests themselves are not encouraging vocations to the priesthood.  We just don’t ask enough people whether they’ve ever thought about it.

Recently our diocese sponsored a workshop for priests.  We were asked to identify reasons for our reluctance to steer young men toward the seminary.  The responses varied: for some, it was dissatisfaction with certain teachings of the church — mainly, mandatory celibacy and an all-male priesthood.  For others, it was an awkwardness in speaking privately with boys or young men at all, lest that be confused in their minds (or their parents’) with the well-publicized scandal of years gone by.  For me, it was something else: a desire to avoid the notion that the priesthood is the only way to be a faith-filled and effective disciple of Jesus.

Whatever our reservation, we were encouraged, “Get over it!”  The stakes are too high, we were told: there are people in America deprived of regular Eucharist because there’s no priest to celebrate.  Statistical data is ample:  Catholic priests are far happier and more fulfilled in their work than any other subset of American males — far more likely, given the opportunity, to make the same vocational choice again.  Why not trumpet that fact?

A course of action was determined: in five different sites in our diocese, over the next several months, our bishop, Howard Hubbard, will have a simple pasta supper for young men who might make good priests.  Each of us is asked to identify one or two such potential candidates from our parish and bring them to one of these dinners.  The agenda is short:  we’ll go around the table, and each priest will say in a few words what drew him to the priesthood, and then we’ll eat.

The plan is in place; the results are still to be seen.  I’m thinking it might work — and praying, too.

Father Doyle, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y., has served as pastor of a large suburban parish for the last 17 years; he is also chancellor of the diocese for public information. Ordained in 1966, he has also been a high school religion teacher, editor of a diocesan newspaper, bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service, lawyer/lobbyist for the New York State Catholic Conference and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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12 Responses

  1. This has happened in the archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis over the last several years, I think. I have known it to be successful, and well worth trying in other places.

  2. This is a good start but the responsibility does not rest with just our current priest, it also rest with we laity as well. We need to pray for spiritual vocations. It is a noble thing to do. We, who are parents, also need to guide our children as they consider their life’s career choices. We need to remind them that all career choices are vocations in which we serve our God in the manner He intends for us. There it is essential they bring God into this decision process. In helping them in this discernment process then we, as parents, need to remind them them to consider a career as a religious as well as the other career fields (all which serve God). This is what my wife and I did with all five of our children. None as yet chose the religious field, which is fine, but three chose careers in the public service arena and two have honorable jobs.

    Food for thought and God bless!!!

  3. Diocreses where the Bishops have taken a serious interest in vocations are experiencing an increase in ordinations. Offhand I could list several such dioceses. It’s ironic that this article was written by a priest from the Albany diocese, where orthodox seminarians are turned away, and the bishop has been investigated for homosexual misconduct. I find it hard to believe that Bishop Hubbard will make a sincere effort on this.

  4. For the record, Bishop Hubbard was cleared of misconduct charges by outside investigators. The investigation was led by a former federal prosecutor. Here is a 2004 story: http://is.gd/26C8A

  5. I believe that this is a good start. We are blessed in our Diocese to have 43 seminarians this year. I truly believe that Perpetual Adoration is a large factor in the numbers displayed in this Diocese. Plus, we have a very active Vocations Director at the direction of our Bishop leading the way. We also have active Serra Clubs working and praying for vocations. Vocations are talked about everywhere. But, we all continue to work for this. Parents are also responsible and need help in their own response to assisting their children to look at religious vocations. Let us all continue to pray and ask young people about the religious life.

  6. His excellency is to be commended for this effort.

    However, Bishop Hubbard is not exactly a go getter when it comes to the most powerful currents of contemporary Catholic life and culture. Vocations are coming out of families fervently devoted to such activities as Eucharistic adoration, the pro-life movement, sometimes home schooling. They are often attracted to the Latin Mass and traditional devotions, not out of nostalgia, but out of a sense of the rich spirituality found within them compared to the banality found in many a parish liturgy. From what I understand, many people in Albany find it difficult to pursue these activities and secure the support and cooperation of the clergy. The orders and dioceses that have thriving vocations are thoroughly orthodox and are not afraid to connect with the beautiful and rich traditions, whether artistic, musical, liturgical, even intellectual (e.g. Thomism), of the faith.

    The progressivism Hubbard was formed in is dead. This does not mean a return to pre-VII but reading the Council in the “Hermeneutic of Continuity” as our Holy Father has said on several occasions. Those bishops that can connect our present situation with the rich resources of the Church’s long history are those that will attract young men to the priesthood. A plant will not grow that has been severed from its roots.

  7. TA1275 don’t forget about praying for vocations to the religious life for our young especially at Mass which is the central part of our Catholic heritage. When we are at Mass we are transcending time and are standing at the foot of the Cross of our Merciful Savior. Of course another way is kneeling or sitting in front of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, and then so many ways that is pleasing to our God. In this process we should come before our Lord as sinners, that we are, seeking forgiveness for not only our own sins but the sins of all of our fellow sinful brothers and sisters of this vast human family. Jesus teaches us to take up our individual crosses and follow Him. He is asking us to imitate Him, that means to offer ourselves to His Father as He for our entire human family.

    We have a falling off of vocations because because of our sinfulness which is rooted in our pride. The prophet David says it so well when he says in his Psalms that God loves a contrite heart.

    Again in this spirit of communion with Jesus acting as His ambassadors to our young we need to keep open the lines of communication to the young by imitating this beautiful prayer of Cardinal Newman:

    http://www.pgjf.com/P03A152276M.jpg

    In doing this we will be imitating the Mercy of Jesus who understands the heart of every human being.

    God bless!

  8. Amen!

  9. How did this wonderful post disintegrate into a discussion of the worth of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, the merits of Bishop Howard Hubbard and the death of anything other than a particular style of worship.

    We are many parts and one body. It would do us all well to remember that and think about how that might influence vocations.

    As the author Anne Lamott (whom I paraphrase here) once put it, you can pretty much assure that you have remade God in your own image once He dislikes all the same people that you do.

    It has been a gift of tremendous grace to be a part of the diocese in Albany for these past two years and I am most grateful for the full expression of the Catholic faith I see here daily. It is made up of many people on many paths.

    Thanks be to God.

    My prayers and support to Fr. Doyle(who I do not know) for this well written piece.

  10. Father Doyle if you read this please contact me. I was a student at the D. Stuart school in 1974. I´m from mexico. It´s wonderful knowing about you

  11. You should not expect vocations to thrive when heresy is a prerequisite to enter the seminary.

  12. The best vocation poster is a joyful priest! Invitation is key. I believe there are plenty of vocations out there; as priests we need to pray, invite, and be joyful.

    Fr. Michael Najim

    http://www.liveholiness.com

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