Every April, the Catholic Church around the world celebrates a Day of Prayer for Vocations — to the priesthood, permanent diaconate and consecrated life, for both women and men.
In much of the world, as Vatican statistics released recently show, the vocations’ push is bearing much fruit, especially in the priesthood. The number of priests worldwide is actually increasing, and the number of seminarians in Oceania, Asia and Africa has increased by 12, 13 and 14 percent, respectively.
But such vitality can only be dreamed of in Europe, whose priest-count dropped by nearly 1,000 in 2010 compared with the previous year, or in North America, where the decline has not been nearly so severe as it has been in recent decades.
New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, tells OSV Newsweekly this week that “while vocations aren’t plummeting like they were for a while,” “it is a little too early to say that there is a springtime.”
For Cardinal Dolan, who tells how even as a young boy his non-Catholic barber encouraged his first glimmerings of a priestly vocation, the task for the U.S. Church — particularly parishes and families — is to renew a “culture of vocations.”
Part of that, he says, is for priests themselves to start preaching “unapologetically” and “directly and bluntly” about the compelling nature of the priestly call.
Part of it is for priests to make sure they themselves are joyful in their vocations, not least to counteract the impression that Catholic clerics — as described recently by a New York Times columnist — are “out of touch [and] self-consumed.” The image of the Catholic priesthood is still overshadowed by the clerical sex abuse crisis, and by an impression in broader society that priests are crabby scolds. And in fact, many priests are strained by being spread so thin as their numbers decrease.
“I always say to priests,” said Cardinal Dolan, “we’ve got to be men of joy, or else what parent is going to want his or her son to be a priest?”
Another part of the answer is greater support for marriages and families, which Pope John Paul II called “the primary and most excellent seed-bed of vocations to a life of consecration to the kingdom of God.” The troubled institution of marriage, according to Cardinal Dolan, “is the biggest vocations crisis in the Church today, if you ask me. When only half of our Catholic people are getting married, no wonder we have a crisis in the numbers of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.”
On an even more basic level, though, in line with the goals of the upcoming Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, the Church and each of its members needs to be re-oriented toward and renewed by the encounter with God’s love that lies at the core of Christian life.
That, in fact, is the focus of Pope Benedict’s message for this year’s Day of Prayer for Vocations: “We need to open our lives to this love,” he writes. “It is in this soil of self-offering and openness to the love of God, and as the fruit of that love, that all vocations are born and grow. By drawing from this wellspring through prayer, constant recourse to God’s word and to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, it becomes possible to live a life of love for our neighbors.”
The pope’s answer to the vocations crisis is both simple and the work of a lifetime: to proclaim ever anew, especially to younger generations, “the appealing beauty of this divine love, which precedes and accompanies us.”
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.