One subset of priests I’ve known over the years have been musicians/never-pastors. In one parish I served, a semi-retired navy veteran who was a fine organist had regular liturgical duties. He preached once a month. He accompanied the choir every Sunday at the middle morning Mass. He had always served as an associate pastor, and always in a parish with a pipe organ.
Another good priest I knew years ago was the diocesan director of liturgy. He, too, had never served as head of a parish. He was an exceptional organist, and I got the sense (from my pastor and a few other clerics) he was a suspect because he preferred to chum with lay people (especially church musicians) and he was not a golfer, card player, or a hanger-on with other priests.
It would not surprise me that both of these guys got their start in ministry from playing the organ at Mass in grade school. Ordination followed from there, perhaps on a more-or-less direct vector.
I find myself slightly sympathetic to the perhaps-dumb idea that there is a direct route from altar boy to priest. Personally, I’ve encouraged altar servers to continue on another vector: to Communion minister or to sacristan. That is, at least, under my control as a parish liturgist: to persuade people to go deeper into service. I wonder how many clergy like Joseph Illo encourage their charges to get a fuller sense of service before packaging them off to seminary. Do they serve lay people rather than just priests by distributing the Eucharist? Do they visit the sick? Do they serve in leadership positions with their peers? Or represent them on parish councils? Do they greet people at the church doors, seat them, take their money, and clean up cheerios and gum after Mass?
Are priests who cultivate altar boys taking the easy way out? Are they too lazy to meet young men home from college break, who play sports for their school or in the community, or who hang out with the youth minister?
I wonder if the better, stronger, surer path to priesthood runs through a broader discipleship, and not just liturgical service. I wonder if the more effective path is to cultivate the call of baptism first, and later start discerning with young people where their God-given gifts fit in the arc of their lives.
My own sense is that if girls tend to be more religious, their extreme end is slightly in front of the male curve. But most boys are more religious than some girls. Whether that is the only field in which the Sower plants the seed: that’s a matter for some serious consideration.
I may be biased because of my mine years in campus ministry, but I would say a more fruitful ground than the chairs next to the priest is secular college campuses. Large public universities often have the highest concentrations of baptized Catholics most anywhere in a diocese. The problem, of course, is that most of them weren’t attracted to Sunday Mass, let alone taking a role in it. And that can be a difficult task for an evangelization-minded minister. It’s rather easy to select one’s clientele, isn’t it? Nothing like putting limits on God to make one’s life easier.