Thinking of Seminarians

The seminarian events and Serra Club events always get me thinking, putting little bits together from varied sources. I think it was among the dotCommonweal commentariat that I heard from someone who posited that smaller dioceses, regardless of the neo-orthodox or conservative nature of their bishops, were doing relatively well with priest vocations. That doesn’t surprise me.

I recall a cynic suggesting that if a young man’s choice was between farming, ranching, or such and the seminary, some otherwise borderline guys might think the priest’s life was a fair mite better if one was looking at life in contemporary frontier America. Or Africa, I guess.

I trend toward pragmatism over cynicism, though I can often appreciate the latter. But if dioceses are serious about generating new priests (and I’m not sure all of them–conservative or liberal–are) maybe sociological trends in the US and in particular dioceses are worth a serious look from the bishop, his vocations office, and a few well-placed consultants who might be able to tell them how to develop vocations beyond the ones cultivated from a very early age.

In previous generations, say before WWII, Catholic culture in both cities and rural areas might have worked in favor of those early vocations. Heavy industrialization, the GI Bill, and the cultural shift to the suburbs was already draining seminaries from their highwater mark of 1947. That’s well before Vatican II for you trads in the reading audience.

My suspicion is that vocations offices and the church in general felt they were entitled to those priest recruits. Those recruits should be knocking at the doors. In some minds, heaven forbid that actual sweat equity would need to be put into place. Rather than alter their ministry emphasis with chaplaincies on college campuses, they sat back in their offices and blamed. Vatican II and liberals became an easy scapegoat.

I still hear terms such as “delayed vocations,” when applied to older guys. Delay, rubbish! Lots of these guys were waiting for clergy to get off their duffs and discern with them. The only “delay” in many of these cases have come from the chanceries and the clerical culture itself. When you maintain a culture of entitlement and put the blame outside the system, it’s easy to be blinded by reality.

Small dioceses do well, it is said, because the bishop can be a personal figure for seminarians and those discerning. An active priesthood is part of the picture too, no doubt. Greeley thinks the lack of support from parents, especially mothers, has taken a toll, too. I think all the factors should be looked at.

I suspect the sense of today’s young priests being a conservative lot is probably accurate to a point. The missing vocations are those from non-Catholic colleges and universities. It’s sad to note that many Catholic leaders, lay and clerical, are lost because of ill-advised budgeting priorities that drain diocesan campus ministry.

There’s probably more to say, but I’ll turn it over to the readers for now.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Thinking of Seminarians

  1. John Heavrin says:

    What’s your source for 1947 being the “high water mark”?

    I don’t know if it’s true, but I read recently that there were just under 100,000 seminarians in the U.S. in 1965, and today’s number is just under 10,000. A 90% drop.

    We need the Holy Spirit to work a miracle. Because in natural terms, the priesthood in this country is in a death spiral. The numbers have been so low for so long that this very fact is now probably the primary factor in why the numbers aren’t going up; we’re probably past the period of men not joining for this or that reason; now the main reason men aren’t becoming priests is because men aren’t becoming priests. That’s why parishes are closing, merging, and “clustering” in sweeping numbers.

    Your point about “sweat equity” strikes me as inane. It seems clear, beyond the mild and hopeful words we often hear, that there is panic at the highest levels and the vocations activity I see, while results are scarce, is frantic. Plenty of “sweat” is being shed, but it isn’t working.

    I certainly don’t have any answers. I can understand why young men would shrink from the prospect of a life of sacrifice and service; our culture tells us that these are folly unless undertaken temporarily in order to gain wealth and ease.

    Why do it? young men must ask themselves. The answers are supernatural, and perhaps we no longer are able to speak or listen in supernatural terms.

  2. Todd says:

    “What’s your source for 1947 being the ‘high water mark’?”


    “I can understand why young men would shrink from the prospect of a life of sacrifice and service; our culture tells us that these are folly unless undertaken temporarily in order to gain wealth and ease.”

    And yet some young American men continue to make sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can’t chock all of that up to getting a free college education.

    Catholic lay people continue to make sacrifices in service trips, missionary work, and untold other ways in parishes, schools, and other activities on the home front.

    No, I think the vocations directors aren’t bothering to look in the right places.

  3. Liam says:

    Well, there is nothing doctrinal binding us to an assumption that a vocation to the ordained priesthood cannot be but one among a few vocations a young man may be called to over the course of his life. Even putting aside the celibacy issue, our Church could choose to call men to active service in such a vocation for terms of years (let’s say seven, ten or twelve, for example) rather than for life (or, in reality, until retirement at early old age*). This would allow the Church to not renew active service from priests whose committment and service has been, shall we say, questionable. And vice-versa. It would introduce reciprocal accountability and transparency, which I think would attract more men to the priesthood. The option to receive a life-long calling to active service could remain as an option for serious discernment.

    * The fact that bishops and priests now are required to retire is what shows there is no doctrinal requirement that active service be as long as one is able to serve for life.

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