Thoughts on Vocations IV: An Interview with Fr. Michael Dolan

As our readers may recall, I wrote several posts discussing vocations and the vocations crisis in the Church.  Here are links to parts one, two and three.  After some delay I want to present part four, an interview with Fr. Michael Dolan.  Fr. Dolan is currently the pastor of St. Margaret Mary Church in Windsor, Connecticut.  Before that, however, he served as vocations director for the Archdiocese of Hartford.  While he was in this position there was a substantial increase in the number of  vocations and ordinations to the priesthood, including at least one year where there were more than 10 ordinandi.   

The following interview was conducted via email this fall.  I want to express my gratitude for the time and care Fr. Dolan put into responding to my questions.

Q:  You are a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford. When were you ordained?

I was ordained on May 4, 1996, for the Archdiocese of Hartford by Archbishop Daniel Cronin.

Q:  What was your experience in parish work before you were called to the chancery?

After seven years in parish work, 1 year in Guilford at Saint George and the remainder of time at Saint Mary in Newington,  I was called to do special ministry. My first year was in a well to do shoreline parish with two other priests in the rectory. It was quite large: there were 70 weddings that year along with two priests hearing confessions every Saturday for over an hour. The writer Colleen McCullough had lived in Guilford while composing “The Thorn Birds”. That always put me on edge. Parishioners were very accomplished and had wonderful life stories. The young ones were engaged and the masses were packed. I felt isolated and lonely, but eventually, families made me feel at home. My homilies were well received and I was surprised to realize that this was the connection point for most members with their priest. The majority of my time was spent with religious education and ill parishioners. I began to work on ideas for ministry among the fully initiated and healthy for whom we offered nothing outside of liturgy. I still find this the most vibrant aspect of parish life. Unfortunately, until the release of “Rebuilt” (*)there was little guidance, and certainly no training.

[ * Rebuilt:  Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter” by Michael White and Tom Corcoran. ]

Q:  After parish work you spent six years as director of vocations for the Archdiocese. During your tenure, how many ordinations to the priesthood did you oversee?

During my time I presented to the Archbishop 28 candidates for priesthood after vetting 400 applicants and of those 26 are still in the formation process.

Q:  That seems like a very large number: how does it compare to other dioceses in the Northeast and throughout the United States?

We were number thirteen in the rankings of U.S. dioceses for seminarians, which was excellent for New England, but behind others such as Chicago.

Q:  What, roughly were the demographics of your candidates: were they fresh out of college or were they “second career” vocations?

Our candidates were mostly college graduates with work experience. Very few were directly out of high school. Our mature priests had the experience of going through high school seminaries, such as St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield, but there are only three such institutions still in operation. The same shift is true as well for college seminaries, most of which have closed. American teenagers no longer make career decisions in high school, they do it in college. Our young people are certainly discouraged from making life decisions until much later in life by their families. Young candidates were always interviewed with their parents. Their faith was impressive, but the maturity, not surprisingly was often lacking. I recall a particular candidate who received his evaluation and worked on what would be considered formation issues. He did a marvelous job addressing areas of growth and became a great candidate. The majority of the people I interviewed were not going to be accepted, so I always considered the role of vocation director as someone who discerned with the candidate what God wanted in their life. In that way, the Church did not lose members who felt rejected, but rather the process strengthened their baptismal commitment.

Q: While “the wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)” it is also true that the Spirit works through human instruments. What did you see attracting men to the priesthood today?

People want meaning in their lives. Some come to seminary because they need ministry. Those candidates do not work out. Others come having a great deal to give in terms of well-developed interior lives, impressive skills and a real love for the Church and our Lord. They are attracted by their personal experience of priests, and often by leaders such as the Holy Father. They are hungry for more and see the priest, as Fr. Robert Barron would call them, “the bearer of the mystery”. It is certainly liturgy and prayer that attracts, but that is grounded in their experience of the parish and a community of believers who care for one another. Many candidates have also reached the point in their lives where the secular experience falls flat, and they revert to the faith of their childhood, discovering what a treasure has been given to them. That is a privilege to witness.

Q: What concrete steps did you take to increase the number of vocations to the priesthood? What worked and what didn’t?

To increase the number of candidates, I listened to everybody and made sure to concentrate on the website, since that is where our demographic looks for information. I never had a poster of the seminarians, because it is always dated by the time it rolled off the press. A web depiction of our candidates can be easily adjusted for the evolving reality of men joining and leaving the process. We had the fastest moving brochure at Bradley Airport with an ad campaign that received front page coverage as well as a television story and radio interview. I believed it succeeded in making a vocation post 2002 once again a legitimate path to follow.

We made use of technology and were on call for initial contact with candidates. The turnaround time was very important:  if we waited too long, the man went elsewhere, e.g, to a religious order. Communication was key:  whether via skype or texting, contact needed to be soon and frequent to assist in the discernment process.

Bishop Rosazza and Archbishop Mansell encouraged the recruitment of candidates from foreign countries to provide pastoral care for the 72 immigrant groups that compose a quarter of our Catholic population. We managed to provide Asian, African, and Latin American communities with priests, but the majority of candidates were native to the United Sates with a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. The foreign candidates were brought to my attention by a variety of priests and sometimes laypeople. I was left to manage them as best I could despite the language and cultural barrier. It certainly widened my world and help me deal with the reality of racism and prejudice. Depending on those competent to screen them, I discovered that  many foreign candidates discerned while in the seminary, as opposed to American candidates who discerned their way to the seminary.

I recruited from the university population and second career people which was an outgrowth of my long time on campus. [ ed. Fr. Dolan served concurrently as College chaplain at two schools.]   The most common conversation I had with students was about plans for the future and how to pray over those ideas and hopes. Those were all a privilege and in lieu of having a parish of my own, were very satisfying.

What did not work well in recruiting was preaching about vocations. It is too removed from the individual who wants to have a discussion. Many pastors were great sounding boards for men thinking about a priestly vocation and I was very grateful for their great example that inspired others. Another thing that did not work was creating a culture for vocations. Campaigns can tend to be too secular and the symbols too divisive.   Rather, it is a good relationship within a parish and with priests. Parishes with good and holy priests who help the people live out their faith and show respect for what they value in their families and careers, those places become rich soil for vocations to grow. I always thought of the vocation director as one who harvests. We are not on site to do planting. Planting is the role of the family and the pastor.

Q: What kinds of men did you see coming to you interested in becoming priests? What distinguished successful from unsuccessful candidates? When interviewing candidates, what did you look for, both positive and negative?

Many men had experienced a conversion, or gone through the RCIA process. Every once in a while we had applicants who were in prison or recently released inmates. A number of divorced men came through, some being wounded healers and others still very much in need of healing. Successful candidates usually had great communication skills. Unsuccessful candidates tended to be in poor health, professionally unsuccessful and weak students. I looked for those open to formation as opposed to being set in their ways and holding their breath to get into the priesthood. Once I remarked that at the conclusion of seminary you are supposed to be ordained, not be presented with an Oscar. It irked me when seminarians tried to follow a script, rather than becoming more integrated in their lives. Eventually, this performance caught up with them when they fell short in parish ministry unable to offer pastoral care that meet the needs of God’s people.

Q: Priestly celibacy is often raised as a major obstacle to vocations in the US. What role do you think that this played in deterring candidates, if any? Ignoring for the moment the doctrinal issues, do you think opening the priesthood to married men would increase the number of vocations to the priesthood?

Celibacy is admired while at the same time is a deterrent. The events of 2002 pushed it to a breaking point which still continues to this day. The number of psychosexually unintegrated people is unsurprising given our lax culture. The teaching of the Church is largely ignored by society, despite valiant efforts on the part of many to offer the truth. Certainly opening priesthood to married men would bring many fine candidates to the fore. However, I believe that the religious orders would keep celibacy, as they have a community. Diocesan priests living alone have a very difficult time with loneliness. The unhealthiness of many priests would be better balanced by a spouse. Of course, this presupposes a healthy marriage, which in our society is also under threat. Many strong individuals are attracted to priesthood, but it is not the bachelor life, nor is the rectory a hermitage. I know many candidates and indeed permanent deacons who would have gone on to seminary, except for the knowledge that they wanted a family.

I never lived by myself until I took up the office of pastor. It was very difficult and New Englanders certainly take their time to welcome you. My parishioners have been wonderful, but it is a rough adjustment. I tend to become a workaholic, which being a compulsive activity to distract oneself is ultimately counterproductive. If priests are to flourish then the old attitude of keeping busy and staying poor is not an option. Jesus Christ gave us fullness of life. What does that look like for any of us? Do we take advantage of the freedom won for us by the Lord? Celibacy is said to be a sign of the Kingdom, a mark of just how serious we are about the life and goal of Heaven. But, it is also a gift that cannot be mandated. Perhaps formation should include more counseling in regards not just to the family of origin issues, but also the practicality of living out the life of a celibate. Name the grace you need to live the life. It is never been done to my knowledge in a formal setting. We shouldn’t have to arrive at coping mechanisms for celibacy if it is to be life giving.

Q: In America Magazine, Fr. Michael Heintz suggested that there is a connection between the decline in vocations to the priesthood and the decline in a vocation to marriage and he linked this to a culture that is afraid of permanent commitment. Does this connect with your experience?

When I was in seminary (an oft repeated phrase that all priests use as the baseline for what occurs today in formation) there were almost no minorities and nearly no adult children of divorced parents. Now, the opposite is true for both groups. There is a terror of being in situations from which you cannot extricate yourself. Having studied with Msgr. Heintz, I agree that his ideas are sound. Young people have an experience of fluid relationships, not stable ones. There are over 11,000 ex-priests in the U.S., so it is not uncommon to see a vocation as a temporary state. An attitude toward any restriction on choices is seen as unnecessary. Of course, this is an immature attitude: people can grow out of it and embrace values built on solid ground. In the cultural shift regarding marriage being delayed from late high school now well into people’s thirties, we can expect later vocations as the norm. Any number of great home-schooled candidates come to us and they are stellar. One would think that they would be sheltered or naïve, but they are quite the opposite. Usually, they are the most positive upbeat candidates we had, but then, such are the rewards of a stable family life.

Q: A number of your seminarians were Colombians. The archdiocese, like the rest of the Church in the US, has a pressing need for Spanish speaking priests. Why aren’t we getting more candidates for the priesthood from the local Latino communities?

Immigrants do not arrive in this country to seek low paying jobs. The children are encouraged to achieve financial success, and then perhaps the grandchildren will have the luxury to pursue a vocation. It is a third generation that will bring Hispanic vocations to growth. Nearly all of the seminarians are middle class. The poor are often poorly educated and incapable of the work demanded by formation. The poor also have needs that cannot be met if working age children are unable to earn a living. The needs of the domestic church that is the family outweigh the needs of the institutional church.

Q: On the same subject, while these men do fill a need, is this more than a stopgap measure? I am worried about the message we are sending to our sister Churches in Latin America, where the crisis in priestly vocations is even more acute, by skimming off top candidates to serve in the US. Also, there are cultural issues: Latino is a large box that contains many different races, ethnicities and cultures. Besides linguistically, are Colombians able to serve the largely Puerto Rican, Dominican and Peruvian populations in the archdiocese?

It is true that the 18 distinctive Latino/a groups would be better served by priests from their own culture. Look at the reaction of white parishes to priests with accents. It is a stretch to overcome the cultural barriers within Hispanic society. Most of the candidates that have come to us could have served very well in their home dioceses. All of them have a missionary spirit, or at least a desire to move beyond the limitations of their experience. I believe that if we had native Latino vocations we would not be recruiting elsewhere. That is probably about fifteen years off in the future.

Q: Once you were convinced that a young man had priestly vocation, the next step is seminary. Do you think that seminaries are doing a good job of preparing candidates for ordination? What challenges would a man face in the years leading up to ordination, and what advice would you give him?

The Program of Priestly Formation is a masterful document that mandates everything distilled from the St. John Paul’s “I Will Give You Shepherds”, (Pastores Dabo Vobis). While no seminary can carry out all the prescribed tasks, some do a wonderful job covering most and preparing the newly ordained for ongoing formation. Seminaries in some cases do a great job in preparing for priesthood, others are deficient, and avoided because of that reality. The number of seminaries should be reduced, as there are too few qualified instructors to be had among the presbyterate. The Sulpicians are by far the most competent and balanced of formators. The diocesan run seminaries can of course be quite parochial, but that is not a minus. They reflect a particular local church and can be very instructive to outside candidates in the manners of parish life and organization. I worked with fourteen different institutions during my time and all had strong points and weaknesses.

Every man preparing for priesthood has to do so within the closed society of a seminary with all its gifts and flaws, but if you can make it in that setting, you can pretty much make it in any setting. Nothing is more terrifying that preaching to your peers, all of whom have a good idea of what can be said about scripture and church teaching.

I always encouraged my seminarians to refer classmates with challenges to staff, as seminary is not a time to be ministering to others, but to prepare oneself for ministry. My advice is to couple spiritual direction with counseling, be faithful to your academic work as it will help you to grow in appreciation for the experience of the sacraments and to be humble in your pastoral assignments:  then you will learn from the people of God.

Q: In the past, a newly ordained priest would often serve for many years as an assistant pastor before being given his own (usually small) parish as a pastor. But today, we are seeing priests who have been ordained only a couple years being given pastorships. Does this baptism by fire, if you will, influence what you look for in a candidate for ordination? Are seminaries adapting their training programs to meet this new reality?

The rapid accession to pastorates does not influence the selection of candidates, but rather changes their training. Sadly, there are lessons that cannot be passed on due to time constraints. It will naturally pass on the task of formation to parishioners and therefore weaken clericalism which is a positive. The sad part is a lessening of healthy priestly fraternity.

Q: As I have argued elsewhere in this series, the Church needs to broaden the pool of likely candidates: CARA data suggest that we are drawing seminarians from a relatively narrow pool of young men. Do you think there are untapped sources of vocations?

There are sources of vocations that could be expanded, especially second career vocations. The delayed maturity of American youth shrinks the pool of candidates and only the experience of responsibility creates candidates that are ready for formation.

Q: I have also argued that the work of cultivating vocations should occur on the parish level: we cannot leave it up to diocesan vocations directors. What would you suggest to a pastor or DRE who wanted to make a long term effort to increase vocations in a parish? For instance, the USCCB has promoted a “Chalice for Vocations” prayer ministry for vocations. Do you think these are effective?

Chalice for vocations does not seem to bear much fruit. I know of one parish that had 300 families sign up to take the chalice home and pray. There was not a single vocation, despite that and similar efforts on the part of the clergy in that church.  Rather, it is always based on the interaction of the priests with the parishioners. Many priests are paranoid to get near young people, and that gets communicated. It is about relationship, and some priests do not possess those skills. Occasionally bishops push vocations, but they are so removed from the experience of the parish that it makes little or no impact. It would be far better to spend time with the candidates in conversation. Give the young people an experience of living out their baptismal commitments and you will grow Christians. As of now, most confirmation preparation programs are basically reception of the sacrament at gunpoint. The DREs try and parents push, but it is only the ones who experience the gospel in action that stay in the church actively.

Q: Several commentators to my earlier posts stressed that we need to think about vocations more broadly: if we want to encourage vocations to the priesthood, we need to encourage people to think more seriously about their own vocations to work, to married life, etc. And, as I mentioned above, Fr. Heinz suggested that the decline in marriage and priestly vocations are linked. Do you feel that there is an organic connection like this, or should we always continue to treat vocations to the priesthood as a separate category,?

When you lump together marriage, single life, vowed/consecrated, diaconate and priesthood, it is too politically correct and watered down. Is priesthood special or not? Some vocation directors have described the video, “Fishers of Men” as the “Topgun” of the priesthood. What can I do that no one else can do? We have wonderful theology for marriage. We have great theology for priesthood and those vocations are so different as to seem unrelated. With today’s attention span, I would not dilute the topic, but rather let each stand on its own merits, especially given the upcoming Synod on the Family.

About David Cruz-Uribe