Getting real about Vocations

This September 13 students entered Maynooth to study for the diocesan priesthood. Last year there were 20. And for more than a decade the figure has hovered within that radius. In my first year in Maynooth there were 84 of us and the year before there were over 100. And around that time the yearly figure hovered between those two extremes.
We know now that there’s a huge crisis in vocations. We know now what things will be like in the future. And, for some parishes, that future has already arrived: fewer and older priests, fewer Masses, cut-backs on essential pastoral services.
And when priests go on holidays or become suddenly ill, the emerging limited schedule of services is immediately cut-back, yet again. We’re now beginning to see the future of the Irish Church and it looks far from bright. There’s now no denying the problem. It’s just a question of doing the maths.
Arguably the biggest difficulty we have is denying the reality of what’s happening. This particular emperor is fully clothed, thank you very much. Even Pope Emeritus Benedict recently said that things had improved in the Irish Church. I wonder who’s bringing him the wrong news? And for what purpose?
The second difficulty is deciding on what to do with this train careering down the track that’s going to devastate the Irish Catholic Church within the next two decades, wiping out parishes that have sustained themselves for centuries.
When the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) at a meeting in June asked the Irish bishops what was Plan B, they were told that there was no Plan B, just Plan A revisited. Plan A is praying for vocations and encouraging men, young and sometimes not so young, into a celibate priesthood. Plan B is doing the same.
We (ACP) suggested to the bishops that all the evidence was that Plan A had failed. And that therefore Plan B would follow the same trajectory. Alternatively we suggested that married men of proven worth (viri probati) could be ordained; that priests who had left the ministry to marry could be invited back; and that women could be ordained deacons. The bishops told us that our proposals were ‘not feasible’.
Part of the problem is that a number of myths have emerged in recent years to muddy the waters and to undermine the need to re-image Catholic priesthood in our changing times.
One is that there are plenty of male, celibate vocations out there if we could only find them. All we have to do is appoint a full-time vocations director, use social media, pray and spread the net and we’ll catch them.
The evidence is not supportive of this position. We’ve been trying to attract male celibate vocations for years, using every possible strategy under the sun and throwing money and resources at the problem and the numbers keep going down. Another web-site or another Twitter account or another attempt to resurrect a failed strategy simply won’t succeed. Our hearts may want us to try again but our minds give us a different message.
Another myth is that seminaries in America are full. No, they’re not. If anything the vocations crisis is even more serious there. Yes, there are a few full seminaries but those in them are drawn from across the States and come from a very traditional, conservative constituency in the Church. The wisdom of pointing to one ‘success story’ is that the context tells a different story.
Take religious orders in Ireland. Most of them have few and some no vocations. One order bucks the trend and seems to have no problem punching above its weight in terms of attracting numbers. Why? One telling factor is how stringent or otherwise admittance procedures are. The truth is that some of those accepted by one order would not be accepted by others. A robust, discriminating procedure is a wise policy, as we know. And if we don’t know that, we haven’t learned anything from the recent history of the Irish Church.
Some religious commentators have been repeating ad nauseam that the answer to the vocations’ crisis is to re-invent traditional seminaries, to turn the clock back to the 1950s, to sponsor a more traditional Catholicism. This is not so much a solution as part of the problem. This circling of the wagons and insecurely reverting to an enclosed, persecuted Church is at odds with the faith of the people and is a recipe for disaster. It’s a Church retiring to the sidelines, ministering to a decreasing number of Amish-type ‘real’ Catholics and betraying that universal reality we describe as ‘catholic’. It’s defeatism at its very worst. It’s a recipe for withdrawal from the world – the opposite of the very spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
Another myth is that the reason for the vocations crisis is that priests do not exhibit ‘joy in their vocation’. Joy is a difficult sweet to suck on because fundamentally it’s communicated not by organising large groups and singing happy songs but by living an authentic life.
People see through the happy-clappy joy, that mixture of naivety and piosity that has a hollow centre and crumbles under pressure. After what the Irish priesthood has endured for the last few decades this kind of ‘joy’ is whistling past the graveyard because it does not incorporate the reality of a lived life. Vocations, based on a false joy, will perish on the vine. As we already know.
Having said all that, it does seem as if at last the debate on the future of the Irish Catholic priesthood is taking off. Hopefully the debate will deal with the issues rather than end up lobbing grenades over a high wall.
St Thomas Aquinas, for example, in his famous Summa, always started by presenting fairly and honestly the arguments of those who opposed him before he attempted to refute them – a long-admired Dominican tradition. It’s a lesson we could all learn.
Note: My book, Who will break the bread for us?, deals with this issue in greater detail and is now available on Kindle.

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  1. We have a “cultic priest shortage” in Canada as well. It is not severe, as priests have been recruited from Poland, Asia, and Africa. I know that this has it’s limitations too, but, if we were really in a dire situation, the laity have been prepared and are ready to step in. Canadian Catholic bishops saw to it, that the laity were prepared for ministry after Vatican II. Yet, there is still concern for the priest shortage, and I would rather, the Universal Church, looked to women. I believe that there needs to be a synod on women in ministry. Today, being the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, I suspect, Mary would endorse that idea!

  2. Plan C. Maybe a dose of reality is necessary. Instead of focusing on the shortage of priests ,ask the other question,is there too many Churches in close proximity. After all when most of the Churches were established it was in an era when most people had to walk to Mass. Now almost everyone has transport. The Parish where I live has three Churches ,all two miles apart from each other. The attendance at present would only justify one Church, which two priests could manage easily. I know it would be very traumatic but it may come to that eventually anyway.

  3. It’s not the end of the world if there are less Masses. Perhaps people will have to travel further to attend Mass. Perhaps it will be that bit more difficult to get Confession. Maybe we’ll try harder to avoid sin? But we can work around those challenges. In times of persecution in the Eastern Bloc, Catholics survived and even thrived. The Catholics in Ireland will be no different. Let’s look forward to the challenges of the future with confident and expectant hope that God rewards faithfulness.

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