Some Thoughts on Promoting Vocations

Some Thoughts on Promoting Vocations May 17, 2014

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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