Friday, March 4, 2016

Praying For Priestly Vocations

I believe in praying for vocations to the priesthood.

After all, according to the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, Jesus said, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few, so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

Though the laborers in this saying are missionaries, not specifically identified as priests, Church usage often applies Jesus’ request to the priestly vocation.

Some have charged that the Second Vatican Council and its after-math are the reasons for the decline in vocations to the Roman Catholic priesthood, but others offer some evidence that the decline really began because of the societal and cultural changes which followed World War II.

One anecdotal piece of evidence to support a pre-Vatican II shortage is Cincinnati Archbishop Karl J. Alter’s pointing out in 1959 (well before Vatican II) that there was a “threatening shortage of priests for the immediate future” (cf Faith and Action: A History of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati 1821-1996 by Roger Fortin, Ohio State University Press, 2002, p. 283).

Alter’s concern was based on the age of the clergy and the increase of the Catholic population; he estimated that the archdiocese would need to ordain 100 priests over the next ten years just to replace the current number of priests, “but to meet expanding growth, the number should be nearer 150 priests, or a rate of 15 ordained each year” (ibid).

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati expects to ordain seven men to the priesthood in May of 2016. Given the number of pastors who currently are pastoring more than one parish, the newly ordained class is welcome but far less than adequate in numbers to meet current need.

I’ve been wondering what St Paul would do if he were to make a missionary visit to an area of a diocese and find that two or more parishes were sharing a pastor. It is pure conjecture on my part, but my hunch is that Paul would seek out in one of the parishes a man of suitable quality and appoint him as pastor.

When I stand at the altar as presider at Sunday liturgy I often see one or more men in the congregation who could easily be doing what I am doing.

In the rite for ordination of a man to the priesthood, the ordaining bishop reviews the qualities and responsibilities expected of the candidate, namely that he be resolved to discharge the office of priesthood in the presbyteral order as a conscientious fellow worker with the bishops, that he faithfully and religiously celebrate the mysteries of Christ, that he exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, that he consecrate his life to God for the salvation of his people.

I think I see in the Sunday morning assembly men who meet those criteria.

Vatican II described the priest as one taken from among men and appointed for them in the things that appertain to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins, to live with the rest of men as with brothers (Presbyterorum Ordinis, #3). And the qualities expected in priests “are goodness of heart, sincerity, strength and constancy of mind, careful attention to justice, courtesy and others which the apostle Paul recommends” in Philippians 4:8 (ibid).

A number of lay married men in the congregation exemplify those virtues, and could be chosen for the Sacrament of Holy Orders, especially in those parishes where the people of God are deprived of the celebration of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation.

Is it the rule of celibacy that prevents such ordination? Back in 1987 a non-Catholic professor at Vanderbilt University asked me point blank, “When will your Church decide which is more important: celibacy or Eucharist?”  

I believe in praying for vocations to the priesthood, but I must admit that sometimes I think I hear the Lord say in response, “I have called men to such service, but they have not yet been chosen.”

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