Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

There are many discussions in the Church regarding the decline in domestic vocations to the priesthood. Over the last 20 years, it has become clearer that we are all responsible for the promotion of vocations. Everyone from the Archbishop to a local pastor, CCD teacher or a teacher in a parochial school needs to promote awareness of the Lord’s call: "Be my priest."

Next to prayer and example, there is no better way of promoting a vocation than the local priest’s encouraging young men to consider a vocation and urging his parents to be supportive. When both factors are present, there is a positive formative environment for vocations.

Perhaps in this Year for Priests, it would be helpful to review what exactly it means to be called to be a priest in the Catholic Church.

To begin, we need to appreciate that there are competing arguments regarding the often- termed "vocation crisis." You can hear arguments about celibacy, the lack of a career and personal satisfaction, the workload placed on priests in the shortage of vocations, and so on. No longer is a priest the pastor of a single parish in a rectory with associate priests; today, we see pastors caring for two, and even sometimes, three or four parishes. Another perception of the crisis could be the position that there isn’t a shortage of men called to be priests, but a growing shortage of stable, devout, church-going families to support and nurture vocations. Despite these various opinions and changes in the ministry, the fundamentals of priestly vocations are still very much in place.

Some Catholic thinkers have pointed to the Second Vatican Council as the beginning of the current discussion over priestly vocations. There were aspects of the Council’s treatment of priesthood that were left underdeveloped; or, better said, left to be developed. "One source of difficulty is that Vatican II’s concept of priesthood is made up of three disparate elements – the prophetic, the priestly, and the royal." (Avery Dulles, S.J., The Priestly Office: A Theological Reflection).

What the Council does provide us is a very clear understanding that the man called to be a priest is called not as an "object" but as a "person" to be a "living instrument" of God’s plan of salvation (Presbyterorum Ordinis). Thus, this beginning point for our understanding of the call to priesthood is personal, taking into account all the various gifts that make the individual man unique. Thus, the call entails who this candidate is as a person. And, on the other hand, the call also invites the man to a conversion of heart and assimilation into Christ Jesus as the one High Priest.

As men with unique and particular gifts, priests are to configure themselves to Christ in whom they are not just what they do "professionally" – but in mind, in body and in soul they "re-present Christ" to the world, as Johannes Metz explained in Poverty of Spirit. To be a priest, the man forgoes a secular professional career for the service of the Church. In so doing, the priest has a unique way of responding to God’s love. The man is called in his unique gifts and responds in every aspect of his life.

The priest seeks to understand all things through the one High Priest. Now there is a point in a priest’s call that a division takes place.

This division in the call to be a priest takes place sometimes without the individual’s being aware of it. It is simply this: Am I called to embrace Christ through the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a religious priest or am I called to be a priest primarily in service to Christ’s people as a parish priest? For some men this division is very pronounced and calls for a formal period of discernment, and for others the call is much more obvious. Nevertheless, there is a division in the call to be a priest either as a parish priest or as a member of a religious congregation. It is essential that every man who enters the priesthood understand how he has responded to this division within the call. Appreciating this division, a man can more firmly ground himself in his ministry and avoid various pitfalls that we’ll review on another occasion.

Now we are able to refine our understanding of what it means to be called to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. First, the individual is called within his gifts as a unique person and forgoes a secular professional career to freely configure himself to Christ Jesus, who remains the One True Priest. Second, this call leads him to take a stand on either side of a vocational division as a religious priest with the vows and a community; or as a parish priest centering himself on the service of God’s people.

Even with the advent of the current shortage of priests 40 years ago and the ensuing debates surrounding vocations, the fundamentals of the call are still in place.

The Lord calls men to "be my priest."

Father Hinkley is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church and School and rector of the Shrine of Saint Anne for Mothers, both in Waterbury.