There are certainly many reasons for the decrease in vocations. Yesterday, we addressed the disappearing influence of Catholic mothers. However, in addition, the world itself has completely changed its approach to sexuality. Not only is the priesthood in the Catholic Church restricted to males, but it’s restricted to males who are willing to take vows to live a celibate life. This was looked upon with respect until the sexual revolution hit us around fifty years ago. Instead of and eighteen year-old boy’s family who hears that he is going to the seminary in September reacting with adulation, praise, joy, and encouragement, honor and pride, the opposite frequently occurs. They say, “He must be crazy. Why is he doing that?”
In the face of that scenario, more courage is required today than yesterday. A young man faces a daunting challenge and risk of entering an eight to ten year period of preparation for a celibate life in Christ’s service. We thank God that there are such men, but there are not enough.
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We started this week talking about the shortage of priests, and now let’s talk more about the “Why”. One reason is the fact that until the recent past, women were the greatest source of encouraging vocations within the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic women, whether you were talking about Ireland, or Germany or Brazil or the United States, took great pride if one or several of their young boys would aspire to being ordained to the Catholic priesthood.
Over the centuries, we don’t seem to see any examples of women being insulted, infuriated, offended, or hostile to the Church simply because they could not be ordained. Since the second half of the twentieth century, though, it’s been a whole new ball game. Women became conscious of the fact that they were being discriminated against. Instead of saying “that’s the way things are”, they began to say, “That’s not right. Why can my son become a priest but my daughter cannot?” This produced a negative reaction among Catholic women, especially in the United States and Western Europe. Now, large numbers of women do not only not encourage their sons to consider the priesthood, they actively discourage it.
I consider this thinking to be a very rational response on their part.
Over the last twenty years, church leaders have struggled to communicate more effectively with women in the Church. It has not been a success story, but the bishops must keep trying. My hope is that the bright new leaders (such as Bishop McElroy, whom I spoke of yesterday) will find a way out of this painful dilemma.
There are certainly other reasons for the decrease in vocations
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This week I am talking about the priesthood, and our need for more. The facts are that in 2010, this enormous growing church, finds itself very short handed. A critical point here is that it’s not just the numbers, it’s the quality. If you have a thousand applicants for particular job, you’ll check them out very well, and find that they possess a wide range of talent. Some are geniuses, some are natural leaders, some are clods. There are extroverts and introverts. If you’re in a leadership position, and you’re reviewing the next generation of leaders, you’ve got a broad range to choose from.
If you cut the potential applicants from a thousand to one hundred, the talent pool drops tremendously. Yes, you may still get a genius, but it’s less likely. You may get another Ted Hesburgh from Notre Dame, but it’s less likely.
The religious community running two hundred and fifty universitites in this country cannot replace themselves as leaders of these institutions. Without exception, they’ve had to stop looking for clergy and Religious and go out into the lay field and choose new leaders there. This, of course, has happily opened them up to tremendous talent. So, you’ve got a large drop in numbers and the tremendous contracting of the pool of potential leaders. This is why the Roman Catholic Church at this time is having such a serious problem seeing strong leaders pushed to the forefront to take over important roles and lead activities in the Church.
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Today the Roman Catholic priesthood is under a magnifying glass. Catholics, as a group, are fascinated by the priesthood. Those that don’t share the Catholic faith are mystified, confused and frequently hostile to the idea of the priesthood. Let’s talk about the Catholics first.
First of all, the priesthood is the organizational core of the Roman Catholic Church . The Roman Catholic Church is the largest voluntary organization on earth, present in almost every country in the world and possessing one billion, two hundred members. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church has strong dotted line relationships with other churches, most especially the Orthodox, but also Lutherans and Anglicans. Given that fact, the Catholic priesthood ought to be drawing large numbers of people into its ranks, because it is so important, in such an enormous organization. But in point of fact, the number of men seeking ordination has been dropping dramatically for almost fifty years.
Take a look at these figures: In 1962, there were 42 million Roman Catholics in the United States served by 55,ooo priests. Forty years later, in 2002, the number of Catholics in the United States had swelled to 65 million, and the number of priests had fallen to 37,000. This translates into a disaster. Any thoughtful observer needs to ask “Why?” Why is this central organizational core of the largest voluntary organization on earth having such trouble developing new leaders, without whom the church will not be able to function?
Today, let’s pray for more vocations. Tomorrow, we’ll continue this discussion.
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