Ask bishops how their dioceses are doing for vocations to the priesthood and a response you’ll often receive is: “Not too bad, but we’d like to be doing better.” In reality, many dioceses are struggling to attract the seminarians they need to replace their retiring priests. Statistics have shown a dramatic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life since the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The Herald spoke to several bishops with strong vocations programmes to ask what they were doing that worked.
Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, is a former seminary rector who says vocations in the diocese are on an “upswing”. There were 15 seminarians when he arrived in the diocese in 2010, but double that number today.
The bishop believes a successful vocations programme starts with prayer, particularly Holy Hours in parishes. He also believes that diocesan priests must be actively engaged in promoting vocations. He notes: “In parishes in which we have strong youth ministry programmes, we’re seeing a lot of vocations.”
He assigns young priests as high school chaplains, as they can inspire young men to be priests. He adds: “And, as the family is the ultimate seedbed of vocations, we hope to see our families encouraging their children to consider the priesthood or religious life.”
Bishop Michael Barber says vocations have been one of his top priorities since coming to the Diocese of Oakland, California, in 2013. He, too, believes the vocations picture in his diocese is improving, and notes that he spends a lot of time promoting vocations himself.
One of his ideas, he says, was starting a prayer campaign, “asking people who are in the hospital or otherwise ill to offer their prayers and sufferings for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life … This is only one element, but it could be a huge element of a successful vocations programme.”
Michael Burbidge is Bishop of Arlington, Virginia, a diocese that has long been strong on vocations. He is also a former seminary rector. He believes a successful vocations programme has three components. First, a culture of prayer for vocations. Second, “the example of good priests, who show their joy in living out their priesthood and invite others to this life; we also need parents who give a faithful example of their call, so that their sons and daughters seek what God is asking of them.” And third, programmes to introduce young people to the priesthood and religious life.
Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, says his diocese has benefited from religious communities in his diocese who pray for vocations. These include a group of Carmelite Sisters, and another of Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, whom they call “pink Sisters” because of the colour of their habits. Both pray for vocations constantly.
Lincoln has long had strong vocation numbers, which Bishop Conley also attributes to fidelity to Church teaching. He explains: “That is one hallmark of the Diocese of Lincoln. For the past 40-plus years Lincoln has had stellar episcopal leadership, and is unapologetic in its embrace of the faith. Having the security of knowing that the Diocese of Lincoln is 100 per cent faithful to Church teaching on faith and morals is very appealing to many young men considering the priesthood.”
Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, has made improvement of his diocese’s vocations a priority since he came to the diocese in 2015. He believes in the importance of a personal invitation. He says: “Once you get a solid core of younger guys in the seminary, they reach out to other young guys and invite them to come to the seminary.”
Archbishop Paul Coakley, of Oklahoma City, says vocations in his diocese are “moving in the right direction”. He too likes the idea of a personal invitation, particularly by a priest to a young man. He also believes it is important that encouragement be given in the home and family, which includes regularly praying for vocations. He says: “We want parents and teachers to regularly have conversations with young men and women about God’s plan for their lives.”
Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, believes it is important to “shrug off” any worldly notion of the priesthood. He says: “I bristle when I hear priests talking about ‘my priesthood,’ as if it’s something that belongs to us. There is only one priest, Jesus Christ, and we are His humble servants. It’s not about us obtaining some level of status in the Church, but about having a heart of service for God’s holy people. That’s my constant theme about the priesthood.”
He continues: “We live in a culture of entitlement. It affects us all, myself included. I tell our young men that they must fight against this idea. We must instead form them with a sense of sacrifice.”