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.