How Bishops Discourage Vocations
In the mid 1990s, I attended a clergy meeting in the diocese where I was employed as the newspaper editor. The meeting was to discuss ideas to increase vocations to the priesthood, because the diocese was facing a crisis. Predictably, the discussion was going nowhere until the retired archbishop raised his hand, stood up and said, “Why don’t we study those dioceses which are attracting vocations, like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Arlington, Virginia, and see what they are doing and what we can learn from that.” I smiled to myself, eager to see the response to his suggestion, because I knew that the reason those dioceses were attracting so many vocations would be utterly unacceptable to this group of priests. Predictably, the priests just looked at each other and said nothing. No one responded to the archbishop’s suggestion.
The answer was obvious. I may have even taken the retired archbishop aside and told him, but I suspect he already knew. The plain simple answer was that the bishops of those dioceses, Bishops Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln and the late John Keating of Arlington, were both explicitly, vocally and publicly committed to orthodoxy in Catholic teaching and practice. Meanwhile, the dominant priests of this diocese were known for being firmly committed to dissent.
Leaving aside the question of whether the Lord is going to bless dissent with abundant vocations is the other more practical question of what young man, firmly committed to and in love with the Lord and His Church, is going to seek ordination in a diocese where the clergy has a reputation for chewing up orthodox people, both clerical and lay, and spitting them out? Martyrdom is sometimes inevitable, but what sane person seeks it?
There is no reason a young man wanting to serve the Lord should be expected to put up with the nonsense of running the gauntlet of dissent and homosexuality in the seminary only then to face constant vexation and opposition from his fellow clergy once ordained.
The young man attracted to priesthood today is not the “young Turk” of the 1960s who enshrines rebellion and views the Church as part of the “establishment.”
No, today’s youthful instinct to be countercultural takes the form of orthodoxy, and sees the mission of the Church as an uphill battle in a hostile world. Youth is attracted to challenge and orthodox Catholicism offers it. It was their siblings who were murdered in the womb by the Culture of Death. They are the survivors and motivated to oppose what once threatened their lives in the name of “liberation.”
Their youthful rebellion is engaged in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. They never knew a time when abortion was not legal and they never knew another Pope besides John Paul II. The mainstream media was baffled to see the seminarians from the North American College in Rome cheering wildly at the election of Benedict XVI, who is just as much their hero and champion as John Paul II.
And this does not only apply to men. In the 1980s, I knew a young woman at Boston College who expressed an interest in the convent to one of the feminist nun chaplains, who chimed, “Oh, I know a great place! You don’t have to wear a habit or anything—but ... oh,” she caught herself, “maybe you want to wear a habit...” “Yes, Sister, I do,” the young woman replied.
Twenty years later, perhaps it is beginning to dawn on some mid-level Church authorities that dissenters are not producing any progeny or followers — spiritual children. I call this ecclesiastical contraception. How can you inspire lifelong commitment and sacrifice in others to a Church you are constantly at war with?
Still, dissenters disparage the younger generation as “too conservative.” What these young people seek to conserve is human life, sanity and Western Civilization, all of which are under attack from modern liberalism.
Jesus Christ is still producing followers who deserve to take their place in the Church and not be treated as crackpots and undesirables.
There is a solidarity among the orthodox youth, which John Paul II wisely and shrewdly nurtured as the future of the Church in his World Youth Days and his plain, simple love for them, which was direct and unmediated.
I have glimpsed this phenomenon first hand.
When I worked and studied theology at Boston College in the 1980s, there was a widely celebrated theology department, boastful of its dissent. The professors counted their undergraduate theology majors in the single digits. When I sought my master’s degree in theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a university explicit in its orthodoxy, and ridiculed for it by larger schools, it had a smaller theology faculty but the largest number of undergraduates in the country, at the time, as I recall, 140.
At the Jesuit-run Boston College, I do not recall many students pursuing a religious vocation. I recall two who did who received hostility from the Jesuits — for their orthodoxy. At Steubenville, there were so many vocations they started a pre-theologate program, and a group for young women considering the convent.
This worldwide community of youth nurtured by John Paul II is acutely well aware of what is going on in the Church and in dioceses around the world. When a bishop makes a strong statement in defense of orthodoxy, those young people inclined to religious vocations talk among themselves as to whether his diocese might be a good one in which to seek ordination. If that same bishop does something perceived as compromising the faith, their interest is withdrawn. A bishop who tolerates dissent is not even considered. A bishop willing to excommunicate pro-abortion Catholic politicians is likely to receive much interest from these young people. A bishop who waffles will not. A diocese which punishes good, orthodox priests or lay professionals while coddling or protecting dissenters will not. A diocese which punishes whistle-blowers while protecting abusers and active homosexuals in the clergy will not. A diocese where the bishop is ostensibly orthodox in his words but where the chancery, departments and clergy are dominated or ruled by dissenters will not.
The extent of this orthodox youth underground is truly worldwide. I have encountered it in all my travels throughout North America and Europe. I have bumped into students I knew in Steubenville in St. Peter’s Square and in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. A constant topic of discussion among those considering ordination or religious life is which dioceses and bishops are “good” (i.e. orthodox). It is also important that the seminary a bishop uses is committed to solid Catholic formation and free of harassment, either sexual or religious, and that the bishop monitor it closely.
There is no secret to attracting vocations. There are plenty of them out there. A bishop who tolerates dissent and ignores abuses will not attract them. A bishop who boldly stands up for Christ and His Church, and Church teachings, despite all costs and opposition, will attract them.
These young people are the future of the Church. Whether or not they are welcomed into their rightful place to which the Lord is calling them lies in the hands of each individual bishop.
John Mallon is a Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine. He also has regular columns on the websites Catholic.Org and TheFactIs.Org. An archive of Mr. Mallon's work also appears here: http://www.petersvoice.com/mallon/index.html. You can reach Mr. Mallon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inside The Vatican (ISSN 1068-8579) is published monthly except July and September, with occasional special supplements.