When I was a deacon and sent to St. Gerard Majella parish in Hollis, there were four priests already assigned to that parish. I was the fifth. St. Gerard was considered a small parish. During that same period (around 1976-77), there were even more priests assigned here at Immac. The falloff in numbers has been precipitous. Today, there is one full-time pastor at St. Gerard with part-time help. Here at Immac, we are getting by with less than half of the amount of priests that we used to have serve us.
This is to say nothing about religious life where falling numbers have been even more pronounced. One need only mention the sad leaving of the Holy Union Sisters and our empty convent to see the disastrous effects of the Vocation Crisis.
The true harm done can only be perceived in the imagination. For it is not apparent to the eyes all the acts of service and devotion that have not been offered to the people of God because the numbers are not there. The visits and the relationships between priests and people and between religious and students are simply not there. The loss is not as apparent as it should be. This invisible loss is even more hidden by the fact that it was caused by a gradual attrition that we simply have not noticed but is nonetheless real. Think of what could be possible if we had 7 priests serving us at Immac and if the school was full of Consecrated Women who have left everything to bring the faith to our children!
The loss has been catastrophic!
Many would counter this sad assertion with the comment that this enabled more laypeople to serve in areas of ministry. While there is a truth in this, could not both be possible: Full rectories and full convents enabling and directing lay people to more and more involvement in ministry!
In addition, I have found that when lay people take more responsibility for ministry, this makes more demands on the ordained clergy since the people have more questions and more need for theological reflection.
There is still a more pervasive reason for the continual need of ordained clergy: we are a sacramental church and without the priest, there cannot be the most basic of the sacraments: Holy Eucharist. In communities where there are no priests (in some areas of the world, Mass can only be celebrated every other month or even not at all for long periods of time), this puts tremendous pressure on them to maintain the faith without the help of priests. The book ‘Silence” by Shusaku Endo, now made into a movie, relates the story of Japanese Catholic communities that continued for centuries in a hidden way through laymen baptizing and teaching the faith in hiding.
Religious life seems easier to do without, until we see the continuing difficulty in providing Catholic Education when our Religious Sisters are no longer there to provide this excellent resource for maintaining and spreading the Catholic Faith; but even this is a minimal way of looking at the dearth of vocations. Education is only one of the many ministries that have been exercised by religious orders both active and contemplative. The Church would simply not be Catholic (i.e. all embracing) without them!
So we come back to the central question: Why are there not more vocations? Has God stopped calling men and women to serve the Church through ordained and consecrated life?
To answer this important question, we must see how a vocation is formed in the Church. God does not call outside the Church’s structure. He uses the spiritual and pastoral context of the Church for His calls. This requires a vibrant and fervent life of faith. Where that has gone lukewarm, the voice of the Lord is muffled. The Church is the tree of vocations. If, in any given time, the tree is not healthy, it will not produce fruit. When it is healthy, it will, of its very nature, produce the fruits of many vocations. What gives energy to this zeal and fruitfulness is a strong belief in the supernatural. This is, unfortunately, what we lack.
While many Catholics are indeed living a deep and vibrant faith, we are living at a time where there is a serious need for a new evangelization. When the gospel becomes the central focus of our life, and when there is nothing more important than our salvation in Christ, vocations will come in abundance. Programs do not produce new priests and religious. Faith lived gives life. Where there is a vibrant faith (one sees this in Africa, Asia and Latin America), then vocations will abound. Where we have grown cold and more concerned with the comforts of this world, the need for the supernatural wanes and we find ourselves with a community of nice people trying to be nice to each other. While this image of fellowship is certainly preferable to the dog-eat-dog of this world, it is not the Kingdom of God and will not produce people willing to give everything up for the greater glory of God.
We need to become more radically Catholic Christians so as to naturally engender the vocations that we so desperately need. This begins with Prayer.
In order to do just this, we will soon sponsor a vocation committee to begin to pray to the Lord to make us worthy of new vocations. I hope that through prayer and the healing of our ecclesial tree, we will see vocations abound in the future. As the Lord instructed when He saw the need for more workers to harvest the souls needing to be saved: “Pray the harvest master that He may send workers into the vineyard.”
And so shall very soon be asking for people to join this effort that is so important for the future of our Church and particularly of our parish.