There is much talk regarding the crisis of vocations to the priesthood. And here in the United States, we are rightly concerned given that our priests are aging and ordinations continue to be admittedly too few. Here in the Diocese of Orlando, we have 14 priests serving as pastors who are over 70 years of age. Who will step in their shoes?
Young Americans today, many of whom have suffered the consequences of the divorce of their parents, fear making any long term commitments. This fear to assume risks in the face of an apparently uncertain future also accounts for the contemporary crisis in marriage today. In the West (North America and Western Europe), young people caught in a culture of instant gratification and fleeting interests are in no rush to marry much less enter a seminary or convent
Yet, on a global level, the total number of seminarians is higher today than it was in 1978 when John Paul II became pope. During the almost 27 years of his pontificate, he inspired many young people to embrace a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life. As he said in Novo Milenio Ineunte, “…young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ….If Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the cross.” NMI #9.
This worldwide resurgence of vocations is a hopeful sign. But it is also a challenge to us who live in what is called the West where the numbers of vocations have yet to significantly grow. And I use the word grow deliberately, for vocations must be cultivated if the numbers are to grow. And that is a task for the entire Catholic community. Priests should not only invite young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood but also attract them by their priestly integrity and joy. Parents also should be willing to encourage their children if and when they wish to discern a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life. At the same time, teachers and just simple Catholics when they see a particularly promising youth should also encourage him or her to think about dedicating their lives to God’s service.
As several bishops pointed out during the recent Synod on the Eucharist, priest shortages are not the result of celibacy but of a crisis of faith and the closing of the window to infinity. The desire to become a priest is nourished essentially from intimacy with the Lord, in a really personal relationship, which is expressed above all by the desire to be with him. A superficial knowledge of Christ – the fruit of an inadequate or faulty religious formation -is a formidable obstacle to fostering vocations. Whatever can foster in children and youth the authentic discovery of the person of Jesus and of the vital relationship with him will be beneficial to awakening vocations. World Youth Days – on a global level – have done just that. A countless number of young priests and women religious attribute the “discovery” of their vocation because they went to one of these events where first John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have presented Christ “as he really is” and they were able to experience him “as an answer that is convincing”.
Young people whether in our parishes, campus ministries, schools, or religious education programs can and will respond to God who does not fail to call – for he is not outdone in generosity. They will be able to overcome “their possible ambiguities” with the confidence that Christian hope inspires – if all of us in the Diocese of Orlando continue to support the ordained ministry of our priests and if all of us support the young by introducing them to a personal and real relationship with Christ, a relationship that is nurtured with a solid catechesis and Sacramental life.