In the year 1965, there were almost 46 million Catholics in the United States served by a total of 58,632 priests. Today, there are over 70 million Catholics with fewer than 38,000 priests whose average age is increasing rapidly. In 1965, there were 535 active priests in the Archdiocese of Hartford. As of 2015, there were 186, a decrease of 65 percent. This sobering number is one of the reasons why our archdiocese has begun a process of pastoral planning.
Jesus says: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mt 9:37f, Lk 10:2). Although Jesus often drew great crowds, his mission, by worldly standards, was not a success. Rather, to all appearances it ended in ignominy and failure. Yet Jesus knew that the seeds of the kingdom he had planted in human hearts would bear fruit once his earthly mission was accomplished.
And in the Gospel according to John, Jesus says: “I tell you, lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest” (4:35). If you want the truth of these words to be miraculously revealed before your very eyes, go stand on the altar platform at a World Youth Day, most recently in Poland, and see what a million young people at Mass looks like. The fields are white for harvest.
Some people argue that if only we did away with the celibacy requirement or ordained women to the priesthood our problems would be over. The reality is that in the United States, not only Eastern Orthodox Churches but Protestant churches with married and/or women clergy are also facing difficulties. Recently, one of the most prestigious Protestant seminaries in the country, Andover Newton, announced plans to sell its 20-acre suburban Boston campus. Since 2005, enrollment at mainline Protestant seminaries has fallen by nearly 24 percent. Many of their traditional recruitment networks for clergy have broken down. Like Catholics, Protestants have many people interested in volunteering for part-time or short-term “lay ministry,” but fewer people are interested in giving their lives full-time and permanently to the ordained ministry.
In my judgment, the crisis is not just a crisis of religious vocations, whether Catholic or Protestant. It is a crisis of life-long commitment – the irrevocable “gift of self” – which is at the heart of every Christian vocation, including marriage and the family. People are increasingly afraid to make this gift.
To the extent that today every vow can be broken with impunity in the name of personal freedom, people become very wary of commitments. It takes more courage and faith than it once did for a person to make a lifelong commitment to marriage, priesthood or the convent. When you consider our increasing life span, there is also a realization that this commitment is not just for 20 or 30 years, but 50 or 60.
We have tremendous potential for many more ordinations to the priesthood. I have seen many fine men who would make excellent priests and who have felt the stirrings of a vocation to the priesthood, and many young women drawn to consecrated life. What is often lacking is encouragement from family and friends – and even from priests – to pursue this calling. Parents in particular will want to remember that, not only for themselves but for their children, the depth of true joy and fulfillment in life comes from one thing only – doing God’s will – and not from material things or from following the same path in life as everyone else.
People laugh when I tell them about one lady who was very persistent that I send a priest to her parish. Finally, I said, “Ma’am, I am celibate. I don’t make priests. You and your husband do – your sons, grandsons and nephews. So please give me some priests to send.”
I am deeply troubled when I hear of young men who are interested in the priesthood, but whose parents (even churchgoing parents) are doing everything to discourage them. I would not want such a thing on my conscience.
What can you do? Please be on the lookout in your own family or among parishioners, friends and neighbors for men who would make good priests, deacons or religious brothers, and women who would make good religious sisters. Pray for them (this comes first, as Jesus commanded). Then, when the Spirit provides the opportunity – and I am confident he will, if you are praying – tell that person: “I see qualities in you that I admire in a good priest/sister. Have you ever thought of that option for your life?” This is a compliment, and although the young person may not be able to respond immediately, he or she will surely remember the moment and ponder it privately. It has been shown that a good number of our young people do think about a religious vocation, but no one ever says anything or encourages them, and so they do not pursue it.
Finally, I invite you to go to our archdiocesan website (www.archdioceseofhartford.org) for information about vocations in general, and to www.hartfordpriest.com for priesthood information in particular. There you will also find how you can become a member of the St. John Vianney Vocation Prayer Society, as well as learn about the many resources that are available to assist with the discernment journey.