The writer described to me a conversation with a retired priest who is being “pressured” by his bishop to return to full-time ministry. As I understand it, the retired priest has indicated to his bishop that he would be willing to work part-time, but not as a pastor with full-time responsibilities. The correspondent quotes the priest as saying “the continuation of spreading priests thin by making them responsible for multiple parishes in different areas (more work with no help) is a recipe for burnout and serious health problems.”
The author of the letter, a psychologist, concludes with his own question: Will the Church make fundamental changes –married priests, women in leadership positions, admission of homosexuals to sacred orders, lay people in charge of parishes and administration and priests in charge of the sacraments only? (Coincidentally, this morning I received an update from NCR about a new book, The Gift of Administration: New Testament Foundations for the Vocation of Administrative Service, which argues that priests should embrace administration in a biblical light, but I have yet to assess its arguments.)
Again, by coincidence, I received a call last night from a priest friend and former colleague of mine, about two decades my senior. We talk periodically over lunch or by phone about “the state of affairs” in the Church. My friend has had more than his share of the sufferings of age, but only withdrew from active ministry very recently for health reasons. We talked about staffing and personnel shortages across our diocese, though in my diocese the priest shortage, numerically speaking, is not quite as acute as the situation noted above. The problem here is finding suitable pastors in terms of age, disposition, and administrative acumen.
So, what are the ramifications of the priest shortage, and what about the option raised by the writer? Right off the bat the first issue is transparency, i.e., candid admission that the problem exists. It is true that some parishes have adopted intense prayer campaigns for more priestly vocations, as in my own parish where households pass along a “vocation cup.” But one is not very likely to read statistics or editorial assessment about the vocation crisis in a diocesan newspaper, at least until a local bishop makes public a diocesan “reorganization plan,” code for closing and/or joining multiple parish campuses under one pastor. Even when this occurs, church spokespersons tend to talk around the problem with phrases such as better utilization of facilities and manpower, increasing costs, shifting demographics, etc. The twin realities of fewer priests and declining attendance rarely make the Catholic press releases. However, the reliable and unfiltered truth about statistical decline in nearly all levels of Catholic personal is charted by statisticians at CARA, and it is very sobering reading.
A second consideration—probably more important than the first, now that I think of it—is the identity of the priest in the Latin Rite Catholic Church. Just as in moral theology, the discussion of priestly identity runs along two tracks: (1) the “classical” definition of the priest as man changed in his very being by Holy Orders to become an alter Christus or another Christ, the pure and celibate embodiment of the Church as “spouse of Christ;” (2) the “historical” or “existential” definition of the priest as sharing the bishop’s role of passing on the Apostolic Tradition in leading and facilitating his people in the living of the Gospel—through liturgy and discipleship—according to the needs and cultures of the place. It is important to note these multiple definitions of priestly identity as we continue.
The third consideration is how the shortage came to be. Studies of the priesthood in the United, broad term, indicate that the Church in the United States has depended heavily upon immigrant priests to meet its needs. Regrettably I cannot put my finger on the source just now, but essentially the Catholic Church in the U.S. was self-supporting in terms of priests for only a limited period of time, roughly from the Great Depression through the Eisenhower era, or about 1930-1960. It is quite possible that since the mid-20th century the numbers of American-born priests is returning to the earlier norms. Certainly, in Florida Catholicism has been sustained by the Irish priests who came here in great numbers; now the immigrant clergy come from the four corners of the earth, notably Africa and Southeast Asia, and I would be lying if I denied the reality of cultural and pastoral strain between many such priests and our established Florida congregations.
The United States is a long way from becoming a land of indigenous Catholic clergy, and the question must be asked: is there something in the drinking water that keeps American men from seeking a life in the priesthood? No priest was ever born in a cassock; something in his familial and cultural network of growth predisposes a priestly vocation, even if not as overtly as when I was young. Many would argue that the American way of life is not conducive to the ministry and sacrifice of the priesthood. Whatever one’s working definition of a priest, the life involves prayer, contemplation, education, wisdom, hard work, enthusiasm for service, fiscal limitation, and tolerance for the demands of a high-demand American congregation. And those matters will always be realities, celibacy or no celibacy.
Dropping the requirement for celibacy seems like an obvious answer to the priest shortage—if mandatory celibacy is the roadblock for many otherwise interested candidates. Frankly, we honestly don’t know. Research on the question is very limited; an internet search—why don’t men become priests? –produced nothing for me. Changing a millennium practice of a celibate clergy needs more critical study and hard research than has been produced to date. My own life became immeasurably richer, spiritually speaking, when I married a faith-filled woman 19 years ago. But other men have either left the priesthood or never considered it for a multitude of reasons besides the blessings of sacramental marriage. One consideration: the priesthood is a difficult life for intellectuals, artists, creative thinkers, and those who chafe at excessive regulation.
As to “women in leadership positions,” this practice has been in place for some years now; women have administered priest-less parishes and served as executive officers in dioceses. But if Church structure is difficult for men, it is hell for women. One example: the prolonged Vatican investigation of women religious in the United States at a time when the American Catholic public was reeling over priest conduct with minor children. My anecdotal impression is that there will soon be a shortage of competent women ministers and administrators as well. Another uncovered and scantily researched issue is the turnover of women parish and diocesan employees.
One consistent theme of the Gospels is the cost of discipleship. Our present-day catechetics and the Sunday sermons hardly ever reference the true commitment to the Christian way of life. It may very well be that the American Catholic sees his or her religion as a portion or parcel of a bigger life, not a personal orientation to God that becomes our north star for every significant decision and exercise of conduct. In short, our median faith is weak, marginal, and immature. It is hard to imagine the courage to accept priesthood in this environment. And, to complete this circular dilemma, the absence of good priests to challenge our lukewarm spirituality permits us to congratulate ourselves in our complacency.
I don’t have an immediate answer to the letter writer’s dilemma about bishops’ working elderly priests till they drop, or denying them their years of seniority to pray and prepare to meet their Maker. But the long-range answer is our American Church’s conversion to the Gospel challenge of life and death, and we don’t need to be priests to do that. Lucky for us, the Triduum begins tomorrow (Holy Thursday) and continues till the dramatic renewal of Baptism commitment at the Easter Vigil. What better time to shake off lethargy and personally step forward to build a holy Church?