In order to fulfill their ideals and challenges, young people are in desperate need of priestly inspiration.
It is truly uplifting to read about the great number of people who are received into full communion in the Roman Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in so many parishes across the United States. This gives the Church a reason to rejoice and fills her with hope, for the Lord is thereby giving us another sign, that he does not abandon his Church. Moreover, it is a beautiful indication that Christ’s command to the apostles—“Go and teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”—is carried out even in places where prosperity and a misunderstood notion of freedom often divert man’s thoughts from his eternal destiny.
At the same time, we see a strange inconsistency. On the one hand, there is a steady increase in the number of Catholics, and on the other hand, there is closing and clustering of parishes and Catholic schools in many dioceses across the United States. Catholic churches are being sold—sometimes to Protestants, sometimes to developers who need more land for new malls or homes. And this is not only sad, but tragic, bearing in mind the numerous faith-filled, hard working immigrants who, while often experiencing economic hardships, came to the United States with the right priorities. For them, the need to build a beautiful house for the Lord came first; financial success and even a good job came second. Actually, looking at those churches, one can see that they were built to stay, as an edifice of glory and praise to our Heavenly Father. Moreover, many of those churches had schools built right next to them, since the immigrants could not imagine that their children would be educated in any other place, but right there, next to God’s house, where they would be instructed in virtue and love for God and neighbor.
Obviously, not all of those churches and schools were established by immigrants. Churches and schools which have been built more recently are also being eliminated, or clustered. Logically, though, one would think that since the number of Catholics is growing, it would be necessary to accommodate them all. In addition, a larger number of Catholics—especially the thousands who are received into the Catholic Church at the yearly Easter Vigil—should be an indication of more fertile soil for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. One would think that there should be more authentically Catholic homes, where the young are encouraged to think about a calling to serve the Lord in the priesthood or the religious life. Besides, since the number of Catholics is growing, Mass attendance should be on the rise, as well as the number of people who go to confession, for there is no spiritual growth without a constant conversion from sin. One may think that all this should be the case. But it isn’t.
As a reason for the present state of affairs, a few factors are often mentioned: lack of interest in the Mass, insufficiency of funds to maintain schools and parishes and a decline in the number of vocations. Interestingly enough, while these factors are evident, it would be a mistake to think that they constitute a reason for the current situation. In fact, one needs to ask some more fundamental questions: Why is there a lack of interest in the Mass (and, therefore, a decline in Mass attendance)? Why is there a lack of funds to maintain schools and parishes and why are vocations so few in number that they are not able to replace the priests who either retire or return to the Lord?
Although I live in Poland now, I lived in the United States for seventeen years. I was born and raised in Israel. My parents were Polish Catholic immigrants who left Poland in the early 60s and moved to the Holy Land. In 1982 we left Israel, immigrated to the United States and settled down on the East Coast. Our new parish was staffed by a pastor and two associates. Most of all, I was impressed by the fact that these priests were always visible: at every Mass, all three would assist with the distribution of Holy Communion. Everything was done reverently, Mass attendance was better than it is today, there were many altar boys, and two parishioners were studying for the priesthood.
I particularly remember the great impression which one of the priests in the parish made on me. His homilies were most inspiring, always well prepared, and, most importantly, they faithfully expressed the teachings of the Church. The devotion of this priest to our Blessed Lady was so remarkable, that an increase in Marian devotion was noted in the parish after his arrival. His faith and love for the priesthood were so profound and inspiring, that I felt myself naturally drawn to the priesthood. It was a vocation that I had been already contemplating for a while, but the example of this priest served as a great catalyst.
As all this was happening, I was studying engineering. One of the things that I would look forward to—when I was home from school for the weekend—was listening to one of this priest’s homilies on Sunday. I must also add that he was a great confessor. He was always available, either to talk or to hear confessions. His wisdom and guidance were always well received by me and helped me discern my vocation to the priesthood. Today, I can say that his zeal, attitude and good example constituted the inspiration that I needed to eventually make up my mind and enter the seminary. And here is the key word which I am getting at: inspiration.
If we want to have more people in church, if we want to have more vocations—we need to see priests who will inspire us. While running all kinds of social activities in the parish could be something good, they are not enough to inspire vocations. Priests must be more visible to youth everywhere they go, but especially at school and in the parish. Needless to say, one of the greatest tragedies in the Catholic Church in the United States has been the abandonment of the religious education apostolate by priests. That is why, on April 17, 2008, during his address at the Catholic University of America, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI said: “I wish to make a special appeal to religious brothers, sisters and priests: do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas. In places where there are many hollow promises which lure young people away from the path of truth and genuine freedom, the consecrated person’s witness to the evangelical counsels is an irreplaceable gift. I encourage the religious present to bring renewed enthusiasm to the promotion of vocations. Know that your witness to the ideal of consecration and mission among the young is a source of great inspiration in faith for them and their families.”
Unfortunately, in the United States, many of the priests and religious who have been given teaching apostolates for the past forty years or more have been so liberal that the effects of their unorthodox teaching have been devastating: ignorance of Catholic truths on every level, pick-and-chose “cafeteria” Catholicism and the absence of many well formed and informed Catholics who could lead the American nation on the path to a virtuous life, in accordance with the natural law given by the Creator. This last issue is particularly relevant, since, considering the number of Catholic higher education institutions in a nation that is 25 percent Catholic, it is amazing that there are no influential and authentically Catholic contenders for the American presidency. Why haven’t Catholic schools produced such leaders?
The fact remains that there is a great need for inspiring, orthodox Catholic priests and religious on all levels of Catholic education. In fact, every priest (not only religious, but diocesan as well) needs to have a teaching apostolate—be it in the local Catholic school, or in the CCD program in the parish. And adult education is no exception. The claim that there are too few priests for this apostolate is not an acceptable excuse. Obviously, it would have been easier, had the number of priests been larger, but one cannot keep repeating that since the number of priests is small, nothing can be done. Nothing can be done only when priests lack faith, for the Lord is always in charge of his Church. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, as well as the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II, always repeats that we cannot go into a discouragement mode. Instead of constantly pointing at statistics as to how many priests we will or will not have—in five, ten or twenty years—maybe it would be better to get back to the question, why don’t we have the priests and why couldn’t we have them in the future? Commercials that advertise the priesthood will not change anything, because nobody will buy a vocation to the priesthood by looking at a newspaper ad. The priesthood is not a commodity for sale. Interestingly enough, it would be better to look at those parishes across the United States that have vocations and where many young people are in church at the Sunday Mass. It is certainly true that there aren’t too many parishes in the United States that can boast of having many vocations. But the fact is that such parishes do exist. Furthermore, a close look at these parishes would lead us to conclude that they are very traditional, they offer many opportunities for scheduled confessions (not just “by appointment” and not only on Saturdays, but during the week as well), their priests are always wearing their clerical garb and the parishioners look up to them, as to spiritual fathers, whose credibility can only inspire.
In this kind of an environment and with priests who are an inspiration to the young, we can expect the young and the old in the parish to be filled with greater love for the Church and her teachings. While young Catholics may not say this up front, they really look for priests who are serious about Church teaching, serious about sin and grace, and serious about piety and reverence for the Most Blessed Sacrament. Lay people can very easily tell what kind of a priest is serving them; it is enough for them to see how this priest celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Parishioners want inspiration in church, so that they can go back home and reflect on their own life in light of what they have seen and heard in church.
As we bear all this in mind, it is also necessary to recall that our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has apologized for the grave sins of priests on numerous occasions. The Pope’s words have been well received and many have drawn much comfort and hope from what he had to say. There is no doubt that the moral decadence of certain priests has done much harm to the image of the Church and one may also wonder whether this fact may have had its own negative influence on vocations. Nevertheless, we must not stop here, but, once again, we need to ask the more fundamental question: why did these abominable tragedies take place? Is it possible that when a priest does not keep himself busy with the things that should occupy his time he then becomes an easier target for the devil?
This question is worth pondering, because undoubtedly every priest is chosen by God and made an instrument of grace. However, when the priest forgets who he is, when he stops praying (or when he does not pray enough), when he stops teaching what the Church teaches and, most importantly, when he becomes downright lazy and would rather do less than do more, then is it possible that his mind would turn to other things that are not only less appropriate, but absolutely inappropriate?
It seems that when the priest stops being zealous for the House of the Lord, when he stops being pious and reverent, when he starts thinking in terms of bank accounts, stocks, a vacation home (or apartment) and material amenities, then it should not come as a surprise that the mind of such a priest gradually becomes not only less attuned to the Sacred Heart of our Lord, but possibly depraved by lust and deformed by anything that the devil has to offer.
Are these words too strong? Unfortunately, they are too real. That’s why what’s needed badly is inspiration, inspiration and more inspiration: more priests who are dressed as priests; more priests who talk to the Lord on their knees; more priests who consecrate themselves daily to our Blessed Lady; more priests with “spines,” who are not afraid to be politically incorrect; more priests who are willing to talk about sin and grace and point the way to heaven and salvation—in season and out of season.
What America needs today is more perpetual adoration chapels, and it needs priests—not just lay people—who visibly spend a lot of time in those chapels, praying for vocations and drawing strength from the Sacred Heart of our Lord for themselves and for their people. Without inspiration of this kind, what will inspire the young man today to follow the Lord in the priesthood? Altar girls, perhaps? Definitely not. In our age of the Internet and instant media, a young man nowadays has many other things to “inspire” him, but not on the way to the priesthood. If a young Catholic does not see the beauty of spiritual fatherhood, if he does not see supernatural faith and sanctity in his parish priest—then he is bound to conclude that the priesthood is just another form of employment in a large, human corporation.
On April 16, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI was in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. He said: “Do people today find it difficult to encounter God in our churches? Has our preaching lost its salt? Might it be that many people have forgotten, or never really learned, how to pray in and with the Church?” Those, of course, were rhetorical questions, to which our Holy Father suggested some answers. He said that “when the faithful know that their pastor is a man who prays and who dedicates his life to serving them, they respond with warmth and affection which nourishes and sustains the life of the whole community…. The ability to cultivate vocations to the priesthood and the religious life is a sure sign of the health of a local Church. There is no room for complacency in this regard. God continues to call young people; it is up to all of us to encourage a generous and free response to that call.”
Young people have their ideals. They look for challenges. But in order to fulfill these challenges, they are in desperate need of priestly inspiration. If the priest will not inspire them, then somebody else will. That’s why the Holy Father continued: “There is a growing thirst for holiness in many young people today and, although fewer in number, those who come forward show great idealism and much promise. It is important to listen to them, to understand their experiences, and to encourage them to help their peers to see the need for committed priests and religious, as well as the beauty of a life of sacrificial service to the Lord and his Church.”
If the number of Catholics is growing, it is a cause for rejoicing. But it is also a sign that the number of young people called to the priesthood must be growing. Let’s put the statistics about future priest shortages aside. For men of faith, there is no need for them, because there are many vocations to the priesthood and religious life out there. But these vocations need to be cultivated, or else, they shall be gone with the wind. And who will be held accountable before the Lord for such a loss? Those who have been called to inspire such vocations and lead them in the right direction. Much is required from those to whom much has been given. And that’s why priestly inspiration is such a necessary ingredient for priestly vocations.