We have been praying for vocations to the priesthood for a long time. It is true that when I was growing up in Catholic Buffalo (1948-1962) we prayed for the Conversion of Russia—in fact, it was Pius XII, I believe, who added a special formulary to be prayed at the end of every public parish Mass for the deliverance of Russia from Godless Communism. It was also very common to pray publicly for “the grace of a happy death.” St. Joseph featured significantly in these prayers, the assumption being that if you have to go, what better way than with Jesus and Mary at your bedside? Of course, implied in every happy death prayer was the hope that one would have a priest at one’s bedside or wherever it was your fate to go. We used to carry in our pockets, purses or wallets little cards that read: “I am a Catholic: in case of accident please call a priest.” As irreverent kids we had a slightly different version: “I am an important Catholic: in case of accident please call a bishop.”
I don’t think they carry cards like that in the Canadian Rockies, where I had my eyes opened about a decade ago. My wife and I (and a pine marten, we discovered to our chagrin and that of the managers) were vacationing in a rustic condo just outside of Banff, Alberta, about 100 miles west of Calgary. I called the local church, which happens to be in Canmore, AB, should you vacation there, and was told that there was a Saturday night Mass. The recorded message then went on to say that in danger of death a particular local lady at XXX-XXX-XXXX should be called immediately. She in turn would make calls to Calgary to see if a priest could be found in time. I guess if l lived in the Banff/Canmore region, I would go to confession a lot more frequently than I do now. I did check this week’s bulletin and it seems you have a better chance of priestly comfort during ski season, which seems to begin in August from the scheduling.
I got a more direct look at what the priest shortage looks like in Ireland earlier this month. My wife and I were looking in on one of her elderly relatives around suppertime. We had seen her earlier in the week, and on this Friday night she looked particularly grand—she had gotten her hair done, among other things. The occasion, it seems, is the regular Friday night Mass/confession/adoration sequence in her little town’s church, one of two on Valencia Island. We accompanied her to the church about seven properties down the street. Sadly, we had learned a few days earlier that both Catholic churches on Valencia Island were closing at the end of the summer. Mass would be available at Portmagee or Caherciveen, each on the mainland by bridge or auto ferry, hardly an impossible drive for most of us but definitely a practical and psychological loss for the older populations of Chapeltown and Knightstown.
I have to think that in some way the decline in church attendance in our country and elsewhere is related to the declining number of priests. Some publications use a rather crude term to describe the situation, referring to today’s active clergy as “sacramental studs.” The term describes the lifestyle of racing from place to place to perform the basic sacramental rites of Mass, Baptism, Confession, and funerals, with no significant time to bond with parish communities in the ways we have become accustomed. There is a further complication in many dioceses, including my own, where a significant percentage of the clergy are foreign born and the cultural differences add to the distancing.
In many ways American Catholics have indeed absorbed a critical teaching of Vatican II, that sacramental celebrations are interpersonal, and not unreasonably many parishioners desire celebrants of sacraments to have a personal connectedness to them and their families, even with moderate familiarity. This is particularly true with life milestones: weddings and funerals come immediately to mind. I am more than aware that connectedness to the local priest can go overboard: in my own parishes I rebelled against the idea that any parish function was meaningless if the pastor didn’t attend. But it is fair to say that pastors—and their associates, when available—become the personages around which parish life hums along. In most dioceses around the country there are large numbers of parish communities who for all practical purposes are serviced by circuit-riding clerics, not so terribly different from seventh century France when a bishop might ride his horse into the middle of the town, anoint (confirm) the young children hastily gathered from his saddle, and then gallop off into the sunset for several years.
Discussions of this sort often end up in the same direction—ordain women and married men. Those are two quite different theological propositions, so let me address just one, the practice of a married clergy. There is precedence for this, and certain circumstances where it is now permitted, as in the case of Episcopal priests who convert to the Roman communion. I happen to enjoy cop shows on TV, particularly the Catholic dynasty of NYC’s finest, “Blue Bloods.” Danny Regan (Donnie Wahlberg) is a very successful—albeit rough around the edges—detective who can be found at his precinct at just about any hour of the day or night tracking down leads on his case du jour. He is fortunate to be married to a woman of considerable character, but I would be lying if I said their marriage is “happy.” Their common life is extremely limited, and this stress bubbles just beneath the surface of marital civility.
In my practice over the years I did counsel Protestant ministers and their wives—it is a difficult arrangement under the best of circumstances. Given that the Catholic Church has taken a highly visible role in promoting family life—to the extent of exploring “family faith formation”—we would be the most public of hypocrites if our expectations of our married pastors caused their marriages undue stress. We would probably see less of a married priest than a celibate one if he was a good husband and father. I don’t think people appreciate that. One thing is clear: in any scenario for the future, the vocations we should be praying for are our own. We will need to think of our church life in the fashion of a volunteer fire department, where everyone’s well-being depends upon my commitment to training, vigilance, and presence.