A Culture of Vocations

It's what I call a ''kitchen table'' topic whenever concerned Catholics gather: the decline in vocations to the priesthood.

What to do? Opinions vary. We've had a tsunami of ink in attempts to answer that nagging inquiry. I've spent many hours wondering about it. And I've given many a day to reading various studies on the issue.

As of yet -- and please tell me if it is an oversight on my part -- I have not seen a scholarly treatment of the positive forces that encouraged vocations to the priesthood in the heady-springtime days when the harvest was plentiful

Probably like you, I have some anecdotal, un-scientific replies and observations at hand. I share them, not as an exercise in nostalgia, but to see if we need today a recovery of some of them to help us increase vocations. I must admit, as one who just celebrated his 30th anniversary of ordination, that much of this is autobiographical. Yet, three decades of conversations proves it to be rather common.

For one, most vocations from the ''hey-day'' of large ordination classes can point to the support -- usually gentle and subtle -- of parents. My own folks were proud that I entered the seminary. They let me know that they would love me just as much if I ever decided to leave the seminary, and seemed eager to know that I was both freely choosing priesthood, and ''knew what I was doing.'' But they sure supported me and were proud of me.

This, by the way, is not always true today. In fact, I find myself near tears when, after meeting with a prospect for the seminary, he cautions me, ''But please don't call me at home, or tell my parents, because they will not like this.''

Two, a logical extension of above, almost every priest I know from ''the old days'' can report the overwhelmingly positive influence of a grandma in one's choice of the seminary. In my case, ''Nonnie'' was a powerful yet subtle force of backing during all my years in the seminary. Her cheerleading, gifts, beaming pride, and homespun faith kept me at it.

Funny enough, this feature seems to remain true as well today. In my years as a seminary rector, I used to marvel each year as I would read the autobiographies of the new men to see how many of them would mention Grandma as a powerful influence on their choice of the priesthood.

Three, almost all of us ordained 30 years or more have as a heroine a woman religious who taught us in grade school and gave us personal affirmation as we mentioned ''a priest'' when asked ''What do you want to be when you grow-up?

Needless to say, sadly, this factor has disappeared, as there are hardly any women religious at all left in our schools.

Four, we also enjoyed close friendships with our parish priests, didn't we? Serving at Mass, accompanying them on sick calls, being invited to the rectory, working at the parish, canoe trips or even short vacations, hosting them in our homes -- we became close to our parish priests, and, simply put, wanted to spend our lives doing what they did.

Has this been lost, too? I hope not. But, let's face it, the abuse crisis has made us all nervous about ''hanging around'' with teenagers, and the fact that most parishes no longer have a young associate pastor -- the ones who usually befriended us as kids and seminarians -- threatens to make this, too, more of a memory than a present reality. Too bad.

Sure, there are other features we veterans can remember that bolstered us as we decided upon and progressed toward Holy Orders. They're all part of what I term a culture of vocations that we must refashion today. Because a vocation is fragile, and if our parents, grandmas, teachers and priests do not support it, who will? TP