On balance, the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States achieved its basic goals of stating remorse for the pedophilia scandal and showing solidarity with the vigorous cultural diversity of the U.S. Catholic Church. What the papal visit lacked was a direct encounter with the 800 pound gorilla in the Catholic sanctuary: vocations to the priesthood.
It rehearses stale news to point out that the number of priests has dropped drastically in the past three decades and that the median age of those who remain is in the retirement home range. Moreover, most priests will confidentially tell you that because of the lack of priests, candidates are accepted in today’s seminaries that in other years would be rejected as unworthy. A more selective priesthood would probably solve a lot of other current church problems like dwindling attendance, stifled ministries and scandal.
Priestless parishes deny the faithful sacraments. Without a priest, there can be no celebration of Mass, and in many places, new rites led by women or deacons are substituting today for the sacramental liturgy. So, addressing the issue of priestly vocations has become a matter of institutional life or death for Catholicism.
Pope Benedict XVI did ask Catholics to pray for priestly vocations. I have nothing against prayer, but I do not think it appropriate to expect a heavenly miracle each time we pray. As the saintly Pope John XXIII pointed out, the Holy Spirit speaks through “the signs of the times.” What he meant was that sociological and cultural changes are often used by God to send a message.
Of course, he was right. We can diagnose the ebb and flow of priestly vocations by social changes in history. For instance, under feudalism only the elder son inherited land or property, so a clerical career assured education, status and survival to younger offspring. (A military career did the same.) The predictable result was an abundance of priests (and knights) in feudal times. I am not saying that all vocations in the Middle Ages were attributable to material security. However, it seems hard to deny that social conditions in that epoch encouraged many to enter the priesthood.
Closer to our own day, the sons and daughters of a largely working-class American Catholic population coming of age after World War II viewed the priesthood and the convent as upwardly mobile choices affording education and professional standing their parents could not otherwise provide them. Not surprisingly, the 1950s marked a high water mark for the US Catholic priesthood. In our 21st century society, however, a priestly vocation is no longer the only route to education and useful social service. (Latino Catholics may be the current exception.) Lifetime commitments to the priesthood and celibacy (or to the convent and celibacy) are less likely in a world filled with career options that pay better and demand less. It’s time for reassess the game plan.
As a believer, I am sure that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church in its adaptations to new circumstances, just as has happened at crucial moments in past centuries. But as a concerned Catholic, I fear the decision may take too long. In future days, I will explore on this blog some of the possible responses to the “signs of the times.” For now, let’s not use prayer for vocations as an excuse to drown out the Holy Spirit.