The Advance recently ran a front page article on the shortage of priests in Staten Island Catholic churches. Entitled "As Priests Vanish, Parishes Struggle", the article mentioned that in the diocese at large, which includes Staten Island, Manhattan, the Bronx and 7 upstate counties, we have a total of 1,710 priests serving 2,500,000 Catholics in 400 parishes. The median age of these priests is 61. The article then goes on to interview several Staten Island priests and relate how they cope with their duties and their loneliness. My thoughts:
1. The priests who provided quotes for this hit piece should have told the reporter to stuff it. They should have said they had no comment to make on this internal Catholic matter. What did they think would be the result of these embarrassing public revelations? The only possible outcome of such an article would be to make these priests, and by extension the Church, look pathetic, weak and contemptible. And that's exactly what happened. The priests came off like sad old shut-ins without friends, and the Church was made to seem like something so decrepit and worthless that one would have to be crazy to even be a member, let alone devote one's life to it in the priesthood. Way to go, Fathers. Lesson: you guys have got to get it through your heads that you have to use the media, not let the media use you. The media is not your friend.
2. The fact is that things are bad, yet our priests seem to be reacting to it with strange, bovine apathy. The article details a number of manifestations of the decline. The diocese is "...having to look really seriously at the viability of a church community...". We have 6 parishes staffed by only one priest. St. Paul's school is now looking for a tenant. Assumption school is being rented out to the Staten Island Mental Health Society. In one parish, the priest and the deacon "...rotate the baptismal schedule and first Friday communion calls" and the deacon "does all the wakes and all the cemetery services."! At Assumption, the priest admits nonchalantly that the church doesn't "...have a lot of weddings or funerals or baptisms...". The article even includes a dramatic photo of a priest walking down the aisle of a mostly deserted church at the conclusion of Mass. These symptoms describe a corpse in its death throes. We know what the problem is. What is this diocese doing to solve it?
3. The answer is absolutely nothing except hoping that we can import more African, Indian and Fillipino priests into this country. Now, the foreign priests are a Godsend, but they are not a long term solution in any way. I am thankful to them for saying Mass and ministering the Sacraments, but their "foreigness" and linguistic limitations are often huge obstacles to forming a healthy pastoral relationship with their flocks, as well as with evangelizing non-practicing Catholics or non-Catholic Americans. Their increasing numbers will only increase the gap between clergy and laity and harm the church in the long run. When we first evangelized them, one of the first steps of the mission churches was recruiting natives into the leadership roles of the clergy. That's a prerequisite for a stable, healthy, growing church. A foreign dominated clergy is a stopgap, not a solution.
So, what are our diocese's other plans? Well, according to the head of Priest Personnel, Father Thomas Devery, we should be praying for economic ruin. He explains that "...the downturn in the economy might have a positive side if it increases the number of vocations, as fiscal calamities have in the past." He goes on to say, "[w]e don't do well in times of prosperity.'" Now, I've heard priests say some really stupid things in my life, but this one really takes the cake. In its sheer, unparalleled brainlessness, this is one for the ages. Not only is it historically incorrect, but it is blasphemous in my opinion. What he is really telling the thousands of people who read his words is that the Catholic priesthood is such an undesirable profession that we need a national economic disaster so severe that it would make an $18,000 per year job that requires celibacy seem positively attractive to desperate men. I hate being rude about individual priests, but someone in the Cardinal's office should ensure that Father Devery is never again in a position to speak in public and embarrass our Church.
So basically what this article says is that our local priests are doing nothing to try and increase vocations, which tells us that they don't really care. It gives us a portrait of well meaning but complacent bureaucrats who are doing their best to persevere through a bad situation, but who lack the will/brains/courage to do anything about it except consolidate, cut and close. Well, here's my unsolicited advice.
First- ASK. It seems simple but it's the most effective way of getting things you want in this world, as any salesman, negotiator or small child will tell you. People instinctively want to help other people, but will usually not do so unless directly asked. All through the time of Bush's war, we've had a military recruitment crisis, yet never once did the President go on TV and ask for volunteers. I guarantee that with the moral authority of his office, patriotic men would have responded to his request in our country's hour of need. In a similar way, the Catholic Church doesn't ask its men to accept the burden and honor of the priesthood, even though it always laments the shortage. I guarantee that I could go to all the churches of the priests quoted in the article and never hear one of them preach a sermon about vocations, never appeal to the unmarried men of the parish to give their lives to God, never tell them that the Church wants them and needs them in the priesthood. Do they ever directly invite boys and men into the rectory to talk about discernment and vocation? Do they even inform their congregations about the steps to ordination? I have a friend who recently embarked on the road to the priesthood. That was something that he didn't really consider until he saw an ad for a discernment weekend in the local church bulletin and attended. The monastery that sponsored that weekend went to the public at large and asked for men. You don't get something in this world by doing nothing. Ask.
One diocesan program that seems noteworthy is nypriest.com. When I went to see a movie a while back, I saw their very cool promo during the previews. The tag line was "The World Needs Heroes" and featured some very evocative and inspirational images of priests saying Mass, suffering martyrdom, leading a procession, hearing a prisoner's Confession, etc. The effect was great: it made the priesthood seem heroic, adventurous and challenging: i.e. something a man would want to do. You can see the video here. It's a great branding tool for the masses, but our priests also have to be doing the recruiting on a local, personal level as well.
Be visible and be involved. As unbelievable as it sounds, I've shaken hands with the parish priest of my small church almost every Sunday for the past 10 years, yet he doesn't even know my name and doesn't even care. I've noticed too many parishes like that. The priest may get to know the prominent members on the parish council or choir, but he's satisfied to smile and nod at the rest of the church for a few minutes after Mass each Sunday. It might not be possible to personally know every member of a really huge parish but a priest can at least try. And even if he doesn't become personal friends with me, it shows me he cares when he does extracurricular things for his people like the Bible studies, prayer groups, etc. that I've spoken of before. Boys and men will want to emulate a loving Father like that, who matters in the lives of his spiritual children. They will not want anything to do with a profession that is represented in their lives by a distant and anonymous placeholder who only does the bare minimum.
Be an example. I've spoken before about how our priests discourage us with their horrible sermons, AWOL leadership and generally apathetic and pusillanimous attitudes. No young man is going to want to go into the priesthood if he all he sees there are men who are soft and silly gladhanders, effeminate social workers, ecclesiastical bureaucrats and crypto-Protestants. In other words, believing, faithful men breed spiritual children. The last priest I really had a relationship with was Father D__ back when I was an altar boy in grade school. He could be a jokester, as Irish priests are wont to be, but when it came to the Faith, he was all business. I saw that when we were preparing for Mass, we were preparing for something very serious, and when we were at the altar he acted like we were involved in something divine. He was an ordinary man in a lot of ways, but he was also a priest who made his path seem eminently worthy of imitation because he showed that he walked with Christ in his life and knew his job was fantastic.
Get rid of the altar girls. The prevalence of altar girls is one of the main indications of how frivolous the modern American church is. Being an altar boy, i.e. an acolyte, is practically an internship in the priesthood. A boy sees what a priest does, he wears vestments and takes an active role in the Mass, second only to the priest's. The priesthood becomes familiar to him. I was an altar boy from 6th grade until my teens. And although we certainly didn't always behave like perfect little angels up there, I still felt I was doing something important, glorious and magical. If my path in life hasn't taken me to the priesthood, it's not because it wasn't made attractive to me or I didn't consider it as an option. But what about today's boys? The sanctuary is no longer a male preserve. The altar girl craze began in the 1980s, as feminists and radicals came up with a novel way of assaulting the all-male priesthood. Why else would you admit girls into the anteroom of the priesthood, if not to use them as a battering ram through the parlor door? And what has been the result? I hardly see altar boys anymore. When I do, they're always in conjunction with a female partner. The forced integration must leave the ones who are left with a view of the altar service as something sissified and effeminate. And that view must surely extend to the priesthood itself and the Church.
When our own priests take a defeatist attitude, as they do in this article, they call into question the very legitimacy of Catholicism and even of Christ. Is His Church so shabby that no one wants to be in it? Is our God so weak that He is letting His Church come to such a pass? But we know the fault is not with Him but with us. I was just reading about the great St. John Neumann. He only came to America because European seminaries were so full of priests that he couldn't be ordained! It was like that once and it can be that way again if we just go out and be fishers of men like Jesus told us to be.