Some Thoughts on Promoting Vocations

This past Sunday was World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  In my own parish my pastor apologized for not addressing this in his homily.  As he put it, he was faced with Good Shepard Sunday, Mothers Day and Vocations, and could not figure out how to combine the three.  So he decided to preach a very thoughtful sermon on Christ the Good Shepard and our need to respond to the call of the truth from Him.    In the past I have listened to other pastors preach about vocations, usually by talking about their own call the priesthood.  The stories were interesting on a personal level:  one priest talked about having to work during the summer on a line crew for the local power company to pay for seminary.  (Naively, I had always thought that seminarians got a free ride.)  But these homilies did issue any overt call for young men to consider the priesthood.

Occasionally, I have seen vocations promoted in other ways.  A few years ago (again around Good Shepard Sunday) our parish religious education program—we use the Generations of Faith model—showed a portion of the Fishers of Men DVD from the USCCB.  From my point of view we showed the wrong part:  a short dramatic story about a priest coming on a traffic accident, grabbing his stole and holy oils from the glove compartment, and rushing forward to anoint the injured.  (A great story, and when this happens it can be a blessing for everyone involved, but I am not sure that this is how I would frame the priesthood when trying to recruit vocations.)   Every few years the Knights of Columbus or some other group in the archdiocese sponsors a Holy Hour for vocations, and I recall that a parish in the archdiocese ran the “Chalice for Vocations” program sponsored by the USCCB.  And our parish bulletin has a small weekly ad from the office of vocations.

The archdiocese of Hartford has been modestly successful in attracting men to the priesthood.  The previous director of vocations revamped the program and had nearly 30 ordinations during his tenure.   However, the need is much greater as many more priests are retiring (or dying!) each year.  I expect we will face a catastrophic shortfall within the next decade and I think the vast majority of dioceses in the US are in similar situations.  What is to be done?I want to make some suggestions.  Let me stress at the beginning that I do not think I have THE answer:  if I did, I would be banging on the door of my archbishop and the USCCB committee on vocations.   Instead, I want to propose an alternative way of viewing  the problem.  I believe that reframing it in this way  makes it seem more manageable and also points towards a broader solution.

The problem is that the Church needs a lot of vocations; the foundation of any solution is that fact that we have–or rather, should have—a lot of sources.  Each and every parish should be producing candidates for the priesthood.   How many are needed from each parish?  The answer is surprisingly small.  To demonstrate this, let me do a “back of the envelope” calculation for the Archdiocese of Hartford.  The archdiocese has about 170 parishes; however, some of these are very small and struggling:  I expect they will be closed or merged in the near future.  So let’s assume that there are 150 active parishes.  Now suppose that each parish had one serious vocation every five years.  By serious I mean a man who has considered the question carefully, has passed a preliminary review by the director of vocations, and wants to continue.   This means that, on average, each year there would be 30 new seminarians.  There will be melt:  not everyone who reaches this stage will continue to ordination.  CARA reports a retention rate of 75% for men entering theological studies; however, let me be more conservative and assume a retention rate of only 50%.  This would mean that (after a lag to get people through seminary), there would be 15 ordinations per year in the archdiocese.   This should be compared to the seven men ordained last year, the largest class in recent years.

In the short run, 15 ordinations will not meet the need, but it will help immensely.  Moreover, I think it would sustain a critical number in the long run.   Currently, the archdiocese has 497 priests,  400 active and 97 retired, a number which is barely adequate.   Continuing my back of the envelope calculations:  if we assume 15 ordinations a year and 30 years of service for the average priest, the long term population would be 450 active priests, a 12% increase over current numbers.   Obviously,  I am ignoring other factors: population growth, demographic shifts, etc.    But I think I am safe in asserting that achieving this goal would be a very good thing for the archdiocese.  Moreover, I think similar calculations would hold for other dioceses.

Now I want to stress that this is should not be regarded as a solution, but rather a way of viewing the problem that makes the vocation crisis less terrifying and more manageable.   In particular, I think that if a bishop simply imposed  a “vocations quota” on every parish, without other substantial changes in practice and outlook, it would do no good and perhaps make the problem even worse.

I would propose instead that parishes should be helped to adopt this as an aspiration for themselves:  that as part of their self-identity as a Catholic community they see vocations as a sign of success, and that the members of a parish take responsibility, individually and collectively, for nurturing regular vocations from their own ranks.  (For parishes into that sort of thing, they could add it to their mission statement.)    The actual numerical goal, if explicitly stated, would have to be adapted to individual circumstances.  On the one hand,  a small  rural parish might take justifiable pride if it had one vocation every ten years; on the other hand, if a large, prosperous suburban parish went ten years without any vocations, then I think they would need to collectively examine their community and ask themselves what they could do differently.

The next, and more challenging step is how to get a parish to take up this responsibility.  My sense is that the things I see being done now—annual homilies, holy hours, ad campaigns, etc.—are not sufficient.   I think that the process of discerning a vocation evolves in relationship.  Jesus literally called his disciples:  “Come, follow me.”  I think that vocations will emerge if men are asked, “Have you thought about becoming a priest?”  (however phrased).  Traditionally, asking this question has been the role of the pastor.  Indeed, the CARA survey of ordination classes (see the 2014 survey here) shows that 67% of the newly ordained were encouraged by their pastors.  However, friends, parishioners, and family members are also substantially represented in this list.  Moreover, just because priests have been doing this does not mean that the laity can or should foist the responsibility off onto their pastors.

There are other issues that must be explored:  the various ways a parish can foster vocations, the images of the priesthood that should be used to promote it, balancing vocations awareness against the question of women’s ordination (a question that will come up and which needs to be addressed both dogmatically and pastoraly).  I hope to address these in a future post.  For now, I want to get some feedback:  does framing the vocations crisis in this way make sense?  Would it help to get parishes to understand their own role in promoting vocations in this way?

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  • Trewt

    Parishes need to matter first. So many young men I know entering seminary are “Internet Catholics” not involved with a parish first at all. Catholics have no community

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      That is an interesting observation. I wonder how widespread this phenomenon is. How do they have a sacramental life if they are not involved in a parish?

      • emmasrandomthoughts

        I think Twert is saying that they do not get involved in parish Bible studies, parish committees, parish service programs, etc. I think this is in large part because most people in parishes are not like us (whoever we happen to be) and we are more likely to find like minded people on the internet.

        The problem is, of course, a priest cannot be a priest only to people who are exactly like them.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          “The problem is, of course, a priest cannot be a priest only to people who are exactly like them.”

          I have, unfortunately, known a few priests who tried.

  • Melody

    In the last 20 years I have seen more men enter the seminary who were second career vocations. That is, they had worked in an unrelated field for a number of years; one was a geologist, one was an accountant, and so on. They were well into their 30’s when they answered the call. The vocation recruitment focus seems to be on the early 20’s age group still in college. Not in itself a bad idea, but we shouldn’t neglect the somewhat older group as a possible source of priests.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      This is a significant set of people. According to the CARA data set referenced in the original post, the median age at ordination is 32, and 64% are 34 or younger at ordination. This suggests that a significant number work for at least a couple years before entering the seminary. So yes, who we are appealing to in terms of age and life experience is an important question. I remember a number of years ago talking to a seminary director and the culture clash in his seminary: they had a required course on “life skills” that dated from the days when seminarians came out of minor seminary and into major seminary. The students were taught about things like checking accounts. The bulk of his seminarians were college grads with work experience and they thought the course was risible.

      I hope to address these questions in a future post when I talk about how to frame the priesthood when recruiting.

  • Mark VA

    Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

    I think you’ve balanced this very important question very well. As the data below clearly shows, the vocation situation in the USA is objectively awful, and getting worse:

    In my view, there isn’t a single quick fix to this problem, but the general approach that suggests itself to me is that Liberal, Conservative, and Traditional Catholics in the USA should learn to work together on a common set of solutions.

    That is, it may be very informative in the beginning to dispassionately analyze the suggested solutions and the reactions to them from these three groups, to get a sense of the various disconnects that result in the perpetuation of this deplorable status quo. These fault lines could then perhaps be bridged with a more effective common approach to this problem.

    In this vein, let me begin with a suggestion from the Traditionalist side:

    It is very likely that a Traditionalist would point to inadequate catechesis in most parishes, with the resultant confusion about Catholic identity, and lack of interest in the vocation to the priesthood. One of the solutions that would almost certainly be offered would be to return to the Baltimore Catechism.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree that better religious education is very important for the whole church, and I think it would only help improve the vocations situation. It is worth noting in the CARA data that a disproportionate number of seminarians (roughly 40%) attended Catholic high schools and colleges/universities compared to 22%/7% (HS/Univ) of the general Catholic population. I draw two conclusions from this: we need to expand our religious education to do a better job of reaching students in public high schools and in non-Catholic colleges and universities. Second, and with reference to your final point, is that only a tiny fraction of these high schools and colleges/universities use the Baltimore Catechism, so it appears that the B.C. itself is not a significant factor in promoting vocations.

      I think we have discussed the B.C. before; I do not want to get sidetracked on this issue except as it relates directly to the question of vocations. Is there something specific to the B.C. that you think would contribute to increasing vocations, factors that would outweigh its dated pedagogy and its somewhat archaic status (insofar as it does not contain anything relating to Vatican II)?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      I also want to thank you for suggesting that this is a problem around which the many branches (facets? factions?) of the Church can come together and seek common solutions. As I was writing this I realized that I wanted to put off further discussion (past the numbers) precisely because I did not think that any solution could be univocal. I have some ideas, but there will be many different and equally valid approaches depending on the temperament of the parish. Some I will find distasteful—either too “liberal” or too “conservative” from my perspective. But I do not want to delegitimate them a priori; rather, I would like to get them all out on the table and discuss their relative merits (and their preconceptions and assumptions).

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

        Thank you for your reply. I think we may have succeeded in identifying one of the fault lines that, in my view, works against us in forming a common approach to the vocation crisis in our country. This particular dichotomy seems to hover over the advocacy for the return to the substance of the Baltimore Catechism on one side, and its critique as “dated pedagogy” and “archaic status” on the other.

        Nevertheless, I see effective catecheses as one of the necessary elements in promoting sufficient vocations. I think it stands to reason – accurate, spiritually and intellectually rigorous knowledge of our Faith reinforces Catholic identity, and results in increased vocations. The opposite, I believe, is also true.

        Unfortunately, according to the USCCB, our catecheses is not entirely up to this task. Please filter for page 279 in the 2003 USCCB report below, with the punch-line beginning with the words: “You may ask: what are some examples of deficiencies we have found?”:

        The litany of serious problems found in many catechetical materials is exhausting, and I doubt anyone catechized in this fashion would ever consider a calling to the priesthood. Thus, while I agree that we need to do a “… better job of reaching students in public high schools and in non-Catholic colleges and universities”, the question is, are our current catechetical materials up to this task? One hopes.

        Also, while I think your “numbers” analysis is very well done (as expected), I believe the essence of this problem lies elsewhere. If parishes are to regain their role in fostering sufficient vocations, then perhaps many of them should first recover the correct understanding of the role of the priest.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I would hope that fidelity to one particular catechism (and not even the new official Catechism) would not be a make or break issue. I am all in favor of teaching Catholic doctrine correctly, but all I can say is that as a teacher I would not want to use the Baltimore Catechism. The 2003 report you link to does suggest that there were some serious deficiencies, but I must approach a summary document like this with a grain of salt. It does not indicate how many texts were out of compliance and the specific nature of the problems with each. (And if they approached these texts in the same way that some theologians have been treated, I would be even more concerned.) Also, I would note that that the ordination class of 2014 was probably educated in high school using some of these very texts, so one can only presume that their instructors and the broader lived experience in their schools and parishes were more than adequate to overcome these deficiencies.

          Finally, with regards to your final comment—“perhaps many of them [parishes] should first recover the correct understanding of the role of the priest”—I think that this is going to lead to a very long and contentious argument about clericalism and vocations. I hope to speak to that in a future post. Others are free to weigh in now, however.

        • Melody

          “If parishes are to regain their role in fostering sufficient vocations, then perhaps many of them should first recover the correct understanding of the role of the priest.” What’s to recover? The ordained priesthood is necessary in order to have the Mass and the Eucharist. These are core to who we are and the practice of our Catholic faith. I think people understand what “indispensable” means pretty well. Recovering the correct understanding of the role of the priest seems to be a solution in search of a problem. This piece illustrates that with a touch of humour:

          Of course that isn’t the only thing the priesthood is about; the shepherd’s role that Pope Francis has emphasized is something that needs to be taken into account in encouraging new vocations.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            “the shepherd’s role that Pope Francis has emphasized is something that needs to be taken into account in encouraging new vocations.”

            Or, as the Pope said, “Pastors must have the smell of their sheep.” This is an important question.

  • trellis smith

    Have you tried recruiting women?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      As I indicated, I want to deal with the issues involving women’s ordination at a later point. My short answer is that if young men are not attracted to the priesthood, then I see nothing that suggests young women will be attracted either in the numbers required.

  • Jane Louise

    I understand that you have consciously limited the scope of your argument to focus on the “numbers” issue, if I can call it that, but it seems to me that this is a second order issue. I hope nobody will accuse me of an excessively pragmatic approach in what I am going to say here. To me the approach you have outlined seems a bit like the profit models used in some professional services firms – they focus on things like rate, utilisation, margin and so forth, without ever really addressing the more fundamental issue of what business is actually coming in the door. For a professional firm, this is clients, and continuing to grow a solid client base means understanding what clients want and whether/how the firm is able to meet that need. I acknowledge that it is not a perfect analogy but for the Church the parallel should surely be pretty clear (and Trewt’s comment above also touches on it): shouldn’t the focus be first, on gaining an honest understanding of why parishes struggle to sustain themselves – struggle to matter, as Trewt says, and secondly how to attract, enliven and nourish the vocations and ministry of those who form part of the community? In an ideal world the numbers should then take care of themselves.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I think you are essentially correct. However, I focus on the “numbers” as you call it because I want to reframe the locus of the problem. In my experience, vocations are regarded as a diocesan problem and from that perspective the problem seems insuperable precisely because of the numbers. By shifting the discussion to the parish level, I hope to show that the problem is not hopeless. Moreover, by putting it at the parish level the question then becomes one of what parishes want and need in their pastors. Numbers matter to the extent that any such discussion must have a concrete end product: young men who are entering the seminary. In this regard it is helpful to focus on numbers because it provides a useful metric for assessing whether a community can sustain itself. All the mission statements etc. in the world won’t matter if they do not yield a vibrant, multi-generational community, and one part of that must be new shepherds for that community. Your concern about professional firms that focus on rate, etc. but ignore their client base is similar to what I was alluding to when I talked about bishops imposing a “vocations quota” on their parishes. That really would be missing the point.

  • dismasdolben

    I fairly recently taught in a Catholic archdiocesan high school in the United States, and I think I know the sentiments of young Catholic men regarding the Church. I believe that there will be no substantial number of recruits to the sacerdotal vocation in the United States until the bishops who harbored and protected pedophile priests and who rigidly followed the Wojtylwa-Ratzinger line of hostility toward promotion of women to positions of responsibility in the Church, persecuted nuns and demonized chaste “gay” priests, instead of focusing on the real issue, which was the cover-ups of the abuse, are gone. In other words, not until Pope Francis dismisses these bishops or replaces them with hierarchs who more accurately reflect the spirit that he has brought to the Vatican. From America, one hears constantly of teachers in Catholic high schools being hounded out of jobs just for expressing tacit–not even overt–disagreement with the Church’s stand against “gay marriage.” And the young men I taught in a terribly politicized archdiocesan high school saw a teacher they loved hounded into early retirement by an archbishop whose own record as a seminary director in Texas was scandalous. The teacher’s “offense”: he was conducting “inter-faith dialogue” (according to Church-approved norms; I know, I sat in on two of his classes, and I’d had previous experience with “interfaith dialogue” conducted by Jesuits with Buddhists in Asia) by inviting rabbis, imams, Buddhist monks to his classes. He had been doing this for twenty years, but, suddenly–under pressure from “Traditionalists” in the archdiocese, the archbishop ruled that this was “undermining the faith of the young.” The young Catholic men who loved this teacher were furious. I don’t think any of them would have considered the priesthood after that.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Okay, this points to problems at at least some Catholic high schools. Can it be made to play out differently at the parish level which is where there remains (I think) a large untapped pool?

      • trellis smith

        I was being a bit flippant in an earlier post, but mostly
        what I would want to emphasize is to look elsewhere than to young men and boys to be priests. A Christian priesthood shouldn’t require vestal virgins. The Episcopal Church has an abundance of associate priests employed in 9-5 secular jobs during the week but available on Sunday. Similiarly the Church could ordain matured men and women , possibly retired or looking for second careers for which the priesthood would be most attractive as well as offering a priesthood more seasoned in life and possibly more wise.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Second career vocations are becoming more common and should not be overlooked. However, I have some reservations about ordaining retired men (let’s focus on what is currently possible). The training cycle for a priest is at least four years and perhaps as long as eight. Unless a man started training before he retired, he would have a limited career span afterwards. It is perhaps unfortunate that we do not have a canonical way to have “elders” in the Church to draw upon this pool of human wisdom in a regular fashion.

    • emmasrandomthoughts

      “I fairly recently taught in a Catholic archdiocesan high school in the United States, and I think I know the sentiments of young Catholic men regarding the Church. I believe that there will be no substantial number of recruits to the sacerdotal vocation in the United States until the bishops who harbored and protected pedophile priests and who rigidly followed the Wojtylwa-Ratzinger line of hostility toward promotion of women to positions of responsibility in the Church, persecuted nuns and demonized chaste “gay” priests, instead of focusing on the real issue, which was the cover-ups of the abuse, are gone.”

      I think you have a point.

  • LM

    When examining the large number of vocations in the past, one has to remember that men were often attracted to the seminary for purely utilitarian reasons. Seminaries allowed males of limited means to get lodging, food, and an education. Now that material conditions have improved and economic and educational opportunities in the secular world have similarly expanded, the number of men going to seminary to get “three hots and a cot” have diminished, save for in places like sub-Saharan Africa. In the specific case of twentieth century Ireland, the priestly and religious life was used as a dumping ground for society’s misfits, which accounts for why so many Irish priests were later implicated in the abuse scandal.

    The fallout from the abuse scandal has been such than the very idea of being a priest has been tarnished in the eyes of many people. A change in catechesis can make up for the fact that a lot of people just don’t believe the claims of the Catholic church, whether about priests or anything.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “a lot of people just don’t believe the claims of the Catholic church, whether about priests or anything”

      That seems a stretch, unless you are talking about the second largest denomination in the US—ex-Catholics. It is perhaps safe to say that the large majority of Catholics are appalled by the handling of the abuse crisis, and certainly have specific areas where they differ with the official teaching of the Church. But I would not generalize from this to saying they don’t believe the claims of the Church in general.

  • turmarion

    David, our diocese has been modestly successful over the last few years–we have fourteen seminarians right now, and have been at a similar level for awhile. What I want to contribute, though, is this: I looked through the list of our seminarians, and out of fourteen, seven either are from other dioceses (two are from other countries) or adult converts. One did grow up in my own parish from the age of about six or seven, I think, but his parents are from another state, and he was born out of state. Looking back at previous years, I think this same pattern has applied for some time.

    Now there’s nothing wrong with that; but if a half of the seminarians are converts or grew up elsewhere, that means the parishes aren’t really producing vocations from among their own people, but relying on “immigrants”–either people who literally moved in from elsewhere, or who “immigrated” from another faith. Put it this way: If we were relying only on vocations from families who have been in the various parishes for decades or even centuries–the long-term flock–we’d have only seven seminarians. Our diocese isn’t as big as Hartford, but seven wouldn’t be enough for us.

    I converted as an adult in 1990, and since then have been in five parishes. As far as I know, not one of them has had a vocation arise from families who have been born and raised in the parish. Once more, there’s nothing wrong with vocations from families who move into the diocese (or parish); but if there are few or none from long-term parishioner families, that seems to me to be an issue.

  • Jordan

    Besides gross episcopal malfeasance, there’s another elephant in the room: the ordination of candidates who are not intellectually prepared for preaching and especially catechetical preaching.

    Many Roman Catholic priests, even those who have been ordained for some time, simply cannot succinctly or even correctly teach the doctrine of the faith. Rather, many sermons are fluffy cotton-candy-y substanceless paeans. I often contrast the sorry state of preaching in the Roman church with my time as an practicing Anglican. I found that Anglican priests are more often than not quite good or even excellent preachers. Anglican seminarians must pursue an M.Div., often with thesis. I have long suspected that the course of study in a Roman seminary is most often not as rigorous as that in a divinity school M.Div.

    I don’t think that every prospective seminarian should be able to max out the Weschler. Still, seminarians and transitional deacons who can’t write a coherent essay on a pertinent topic (doctrine, ecclesiology, or theology etc.) and who cannot translate that knowledge to demonstrated homiletic ability, might not ultimately be called to the priesthood. David, I fully agree that vocations must come from supportive parishes who consistently affirm the chosen nature and great duty of the priesthood. However, not all the men who perceive a vocation are called in the end. Yes, the numbers look grim, as you have demonstrated. Still, that should not imply that every man who presents himself to the seminary rector should ultimately be ordained. We are in a period where the quantity of vocations matters. Yet, should not quality also continue to be an important criterion?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree that quality matters: it matters a lot. Indeed, from some things I have been reading, I wonder if some part of the child-abuse crisis cannot be blamed on the rapid expansion of the Church in the US in the post-war period, and the need bishops perceived to take anybody for seminary in order to fill all the slots that were appearing. Not the whole story, but I think it may have played a role.

      Notice in my numerical model I assumed 50% retention as opposed to the observed 75% in CARA studies. Some of these will be men who decide they do not have a vocation; others will be men who are told they don’t meet the criteria of the diocese for whatever reason. Weeding out bad candidates is as important as nurturing possible candidates and supporting good ones.

    • dismasdolben

      i fully agree with what Jordan has said; in fact, my own “catachesis” goes on more here, at this website, than it ever did through sermons, Catholic school “theology” classes, or CCD classes. The only good sermons I’ve ever heard in my entire life were given by Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans, and usually at Newman Centres on campuses.

  • Brian Martin

    I would suggest that broadening the discussion of “vocations” starting at a young age would be helpful. If one introduces the idea that God may be calling each of us to something specific in our life, and to the idea of looking for God, and practicing discernment, to young children in Catholic schools etc., perhaps this would help with specific vocations. If the idea that one’s vocation may be being a doctor, or a nurse, or a farmer…that being open to what God may want us to do, is taught early on, I would suggest that it increases the likelihood of the individual then being open to a call to the vocation of priesthood. When that is either the sole or primary focus of conversations about “vocation” it leaves the vast majority of people out of the conversation. We all benefit from asking God’s direction in our lives, and asking what he wants of us.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Brian, this is a very good point. I do not think I really understood it, until I had a spiritual director about a decade ago who told me that my vocation was to be a mathematician. Reflecting on that observation has been a very deepening experience for me.

  • Agellius

    “It is worth noting in the CARA data that a disproportionate number of seminarians (roughly 40%) attended Catholic high schools and colleges/universities compared to 22%/7% (HS/Univ) of the general Catholic population.”

    What this seems to me to indicate is that most seminarians come from seriously Catholic families, families serious enough to send their kids to Catholic schools even at a financial sacrifice. I don’t think that “expanding” our catechesis to try to do a better job catechizing students in secular schools can overcome this.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      As a soi disant “serious Catholic” who sent his children to public schools, I don’t think this insidious distinction is a helpful one. Instead of faulting me for my choice, how about helping me (and other like me) better educate my children in the faith?

  • Agellius

    I agree with Mark VA. It’s not that there’s anything magical about the Baltimore Catechism such that no other will do. But the BC does present the faith in a straightforward way with no apologies (unlike the materials used in my kids’ diocesan grade school), and I think that’s what’s needed. Becoming a priest is a hard sacrifice. Such a thing will have no appeal to people who have never learned what hard sacrifice is and why we all need to do it, whether we’re priests or not.

    The more the Church reconciles itself to the world, the less difference people see between the Church and the world, and the less willing they are to commit to a way of life that calls them to be totally unlike the world.

  • Commoner

    I don’t have any solutions. As a mother of six (three boys), I can say that while I would never stand in the way if any of them told me they thought they had a vocation, I have never encouraged it, either. And I am privately relieved none of them seem interested.

    It’s been so long since I have had a priest I really liked or felt inspired by that I have a hard time remembering such an experience. We go to church weekly and on holy days (and I always have the good intention of trying to attend daily mass more often but can’t seem to actually make it happen), but we don’t go because we like the priest. One of the seminarians in our diocese who is being ordained in a few weeks creeped me out with his behavior with one of my sons (who was technically an adult at that point, just barely–and there was nothing really reportable, so I just kept my mouth shut) to the point that if he is ever assigned to our parish, we will drive to another church every weekend. God help us if he is indicative of the kind of new priest being ordained these days.

    I have six children. I would imagine that many mothers who only have one or two sons would be even more reluctant to encourage their sons in a vocation to the priesthood. It’s a hard, lonely life, and one that has attracted many unbalanced and unhealthy men in the past.

    Ironically. my mother-in-law would have given her right eye to have one of her five sons become a priest. She never really forgave me for marrying the one son who showed the most promise. Gone are the days when a lot of Catholic mothers pushed their sons toward the priesthood.

    • Melody

      For forever, it seems like, we’ve been hearing that “parents need to encourage vocations in their children.” I keep wondering how that’s supposed to work. The time I tried to suggest a college major to our oldest, it wasn’t well received. We have two sons, no girls. We would have been honored to have a priest in the family. Or even two. But what I have always felt, is that the choice of vocation is between the person and God, and I wouldn’t have wanted to influence that, let alone push for an outcome. I tried to let our sons know that whatever vocation they discerned, they would have our support. The main thing I wanted them to be is good, and after that, happy. Both are happily married, and we have three amazing granddaughters. And I’m not at all unhappy with that outcome :)

    • emmasrandomthoughts

      Commoner brings up a good point. For many Catholic women, having a son become a priest was comparable to having a son become a doctor or mayor. It was a status symbol within the community.

      Hundreds of years ago, the priesthood was used as a dumping ground for second and third sons of the nobility. Not all countries had the strict primogeniture laws that Britain had. Sending younger sons off to become priests and monks kept the property and wealth intact.

      There were plenty of people who encouraged (or even commanded) their sons to become priests for very worldly motivations.

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  • Agellius

    David writes, “Instead of faulting me for my choice, how about helping me (and other like me) better educate my children in the faith?”

    I fail to see how my comment implies faulting you for your choice. I was pointing out a tendency, that families who sacrifice to send their kids to Catholic schools tend to be more serious Catholics. We both know that this may or may not be true in particular cases. Some send their kids to Catholic schools because they think they’ll get a better education, or because public schools are more dangerous, or any number of reasons.

    But what I was disagreeing with was your apparent assumption that more priests come from Catholic schools because they get better educated in the faith than kids from public schools. I think it’s more likely the effect of, first, coming from a seriously Catholic family and second, being immersed in the Catholic community that a Catholic school provides.

    At the same time, I think that even in Catholic schools the culture is becoming less and less distinctively Catholic as catechesis is watered down.

    I have experience of two different kinds of Catholic schools: My older son attended a diocesan school for grade and middle school, then switched to a NAPCIS school [] for high school. My younger son switched to the NAPCIS school after grade school. After switching to the NAPCIS school, the cultural differences were glaring. One example is school choral concerts. At the NAPCIS school the kids would sing religious works by classical composers, whereas the diocesan school would have theme concerts featuring Broadway show tunes or the greatest hits of the Beatles. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those types of songs. The NAPCIS school would throw in a secular hit now and then. The point is that Catholic music was not even part of the repertoire of the diocesan school; it seemed not to even occur to them that Catholic school kids should sing Catholic music.

    This is just one example of many, the point being that Catholic culture in general is being watered down, and it’s no surprise to me that fewer vocations would be a result.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Sorry, perhaps I was too quick to read motive. Unfortunately, I have run into folks who take Catholic schooling (or home schooling) as being the defining line between “real” Catholics and “nominal” or “cultural” ones. It stuck in my craw sideways, as you can perhaps tell.

      As for my assumptions: I had not probed too closely at them, so you may be right. I was trying to explore the correlation between Catholic schools and priestly vocations but my eyes were on expanding the pool: what can we do to get more young men who do not go to Catholic schools to consider the priesthood? Maybe it does boil down to coming from more seriously Catholic families, but I think it is more complicated than that, and the fact remains that we have to find young men somewhere.

      • Agellius

        Don’t you agree that first and foremost, it’s a matter of getting more young men to take the faith seriously? I admit that how to do this is the $64,000 question. But it seems to me that “expanding the pool” of potential vocations will only happen after you have expanded the pool of seriously faithful, and indeed counter-cultural, Catholics in the first place.

        For me the key words are community and culture. Catholic culture needs to be more than half a degree different from mainstream culture or kids will have no reason to think that it has anything unique to offer.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I agree, though with the caveat that we need to make sure we agree on what is meant by “take the faith seriously.” This is probably a very small point, but I am not much of a fan of “Catholic” music, however defined, and I am not bothered by the fact that my kids had very limited exposure to it. So, what do you mean by this expression? I know it sounds self-evident, but honestly, I am having a hard time defining what I mean by it.

      • Mark VA

        Mr. Cruz-Uribe:

        You are right, there are some who equate (wrongly, in my opinion) home schooling with being a “real” Catholic. As a traditionalist Catholic, I disagree with this. For example, based on my experience, not all children respond well to home schooling environments, plus, not all parents have the wherewithal to teach certain subjects at the high school level (mathematics readily springs to mind). Also, sooner or later, the children will have to leave the cocoon, and learn to stand on their own two feet. I’m glad that we seem to be in agreement on this.

        I also agree with Agellius regarding the substance of the catechisms being used today. A few years back I had an opportunity to compare, in fair detail, the Baltimore Catechism #1 (grade school level) with a popular and comparable catechism used today in many Catholic grade schools. While I didn’t see any heresies in the popular catechism, its main focus did seem to be “therapeutic” rather than didactic. In my opinion, it dwelled on generating feelings, to the detriment of imparting knowledge. I thought that this mix could have been much better balanced.

        By analogy, let’s say a person wants to experience the taste of espresso coffee, and has two choices: two shots with little cream and sugar, and two shots with little cream and sugar, mixed with one quart of water. Objectively, both choices offer two shots of espresso; yet, the two experiences will be very different.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Who puts cream and sugar in espresso? :-)

          I don’t want to get sidetracked into a discussion about catechisms, per se. I think the differences you are pointing to are grounded in different notions of pedagogy and what role a textbook should play in supporting that pedagogy. One only needs to compare current calculus books with the books used two generations ago to see similar differences.

    • Jordan

      re: Agellius [May 20, 2014 11:26 am]: I wish I could be so sanguine about Catholic school education. It’s just that in my experience Catholic high school students are often just about as pious or virginal as their public school counterparts. Perhaps student religiosity depends on the school. “Religiosity” is a metric that can’t be easily defined, though.

      I went to a Catholic boys’ school. Supposedly the academic quality of the school was better than even most public schools on Long Island. However, the school was not diverse. The school was ethnically homogenous (95+% white students, all white religious), and at least half the boys came from the top three wealthiest zip codes in the county. Sending your boy to Chaminade was in part due to trust in the academic quality but also a marker of social arrival. My father’s family was too poor to send him to the school, so you better bet that my brother and I attended.

      Mandatory Mass (only once a month) and periodic retreats could only do so much to cover over the true secularity of the school. The junior and senior proms were cancelled soon after I graduated. Allegedly, some students would rent houses on the east end of the island and have after-prom bacchanals. A Catholic institution has a right (and some might say, a duty) to curb behavior not in keeping with Catholic mores and morality. However, the attitudes and behavior of the students after-hours demonstrates that having a cross in your shield does not necessarily leave room for the Holy Ghost.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I have had close exposure to Catholic schools in Oakland, CA, where they where they had a predominantly non-Catholic student body that was very diverse, ethnically and socially, and here in CT, where a lot of them seem to resemble prep schools: white and upper-middle class. I am not at all familiar with the independent Catholic schools Agellius is referring to. I think your point about Catholic schools is a good one, and maybe Agellius is correct in pointing out that this may be a consequence of something else that leads to vocations.

      • Agellius


        “I wish I could be so sanguine about Catholic school education.”

        Oh I’m not sanguine, generally speaking. The point I tried to make in one of my prior posts was that our local diocesan school was hardly more Catholic in culture and outlook than our local public high school. It’s the NON-diocesan (parent-founded) Catholic school that I transferred my kids to that has what I consider a definite Catholic culture, which has helped to reinforce my sons’ faith through positive peer pressure.

        To be fair, a diocesan school could never really be that way, because it must take pretty much all comers. So it’s always going to be somewhat diluted with families who aren’t all that devout. Still, they could do a much better job than they have been at trying not to be completely indistinguishable from the surrounding culture.

  • Agellius


    “… we need to make sure we agree on what is meant by “take the faith seriously.” This is probably a very small point, but I am not much of a fan of “Catholic” music, however defined, and I am not bothered by the fact that my kids had very limited exposure to it. So, what do you mean by this expression?”

    Well, I didn’t mean to say that listening to Catholic music is equivalent to taking the faith seriously. : ) But teaching Catholic music to Catholic kids is one way of reinforcing and preserving a distinctively Catholic culture. There’s also Catholic art, drama, literature, poetry, etc.

    To me taking the faith seriously means, basically, understanding that it’s the most important thing in your life, that it’s the means to temporal peace (through freedom from sin) and eternal happiness. Really this just means “having faith”, since one who has faith will know these things.

    Obviously we can’t make people have faith since it’s God’s gift to give. But we can and should remove obstacles to faith whenever possible, and one way of doing this is having people in authority take the faith seriously in the sense that they teach it straightforwardly and without apology, as well as valuing and giving pride of place to Catholic culture; again not excluding non-Catholic culture but making it subordinate. In other words, creating an environment where “in here” is the City of God and “out there” is the City of Man, so to speak. They may do things a certain way out there, and we’ll try to help you understand those ways and how to navigate them, but these are the ways God wants us to do things, and when the two conflict you always choose God’s ways.

    The problem with all this is that you need to have people in authority who themselves take the faith seriously. And how to bring THAT about is another question.

  • Mark VA

    Since the priest assembly machine needs to be mended,
    Advice was offered, some good, some so-so, some highly recommended;
    And now that Cruz has all this information,
    He can grab the wrench, and do the fixin’ operation.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      In verse, no less!

      Please stay tuned for Part II, where I want to discuss images of the priesthood.

      • Mark VA

        Thank you for your reply, dear sir,
        But from it I’m tempted to infer
        That prose is all you can muster,
        ‘Cause your ditties are a complete disaster?

        OK, the one below is for your math students:

        One and one over a number that’s rising,
        Multiplying itself seems to be stabilizing,
        Under a ceiling that’s not too high;
        Now you explain: if so, then why?

        • Agellius


          In response to your “mathematical riddle”, my son wrote out an equation and then said “It’s basically the definition of ‘e'”. Is he right?

  • Mark VA


    Yes, he’s got it! Congratulations!

    (Of course, I hope Mr. Cruz-Uribe agrees, and will grant us the official imprimatur, in rhyme, if possible).

    OK, this next one should be a breeze:

    His pedigree is unlike like any other,
    On account of having a round father,
    And a mother who cut papa straight thru the middle,
    With a string from an old fiddle.

    And this one should not be too difficult, either:

    A certain operator was known to complain:
    “Plus thinks I’m strange, Minus says I don’t fit in any real domain”;
    But if truth be clearly stated,
    He’s happiest when rotated.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I will not be drawn into a math doggerel exchange……

      • Mark VA

        OK, I’ll settle for “doggerel” – a well chosen word. My second rate muse says she approves…

  • Ronald King

    David, I also believe we must look at this question from a different perspective. As I read through the comments above while at the same time being aware of how my brain was reacting to these comments through my particular history of experiences I was constantly drawn to the idea that this particular crisis of faith is no different from the human crisis of identity formation each of us encounter each moment of our lives beginning in the womb with the influence of a genetic and social history predisposing us to how we will instinctively react to the quality of our primary and secondary attachments. What we observe outwardly and subjectively react to inwardly forms the foundation of our human identity.
    So without going into detail I think we must first consider the quality of the interpersonal attachment the Church develops with its “family”. Does the Church create a secure or insecure attachment with its children? In this perspective I consider the family to be the entire human population of our home. The parents of this family are concretely presented to us in a clearly defined way and their values are passed on to us through the quality of the interpersonal relationship which they create in our formation. What are the characteristics of that relationship and what are the consequences?
    Catholic means “whole” and I think that Pope Francis is attempting to communicate that to us. Vocations will increase when the Church is seen as the loving and empathetic parent most human beings long for who “joyfully” sacrifice everything to care for their children.

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