Rethinking the Vocations Crisis Part 1: The Problem

I’m writing a follow-up to the Commonweal piece I published last year about my experience at SJV, and -- more generally -- what it’s like to be trained inside a contemporary seminary. The decision to do this was spurred, in part, by an article written by Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), that came out in the same issue of Commonweal as my original article. In her article, Gautier points out that one reason why priestly formation is in such a chaotic state today is that the scope of the responsibilities for which today’s priests are being trained is massive:

Once ordained, priests are typically placed in a parish as an associate, under the mentorship of an experienced pastor. In the 1960s and ’70s it was not uncommon for associate pastors to chafe under the expectation that it might take twenty-five years before getting a parish of their own. Today, given the shortage of priests, many of the newly ordained find themselves in charge of one or more parishes after serving only briefly as an associate pastor. Where the shortage of priests is particularly severe, some are placed by themselves as the administrator of a parish, under the supervision of a pastor in another parish. These arrangements place a tremendous amount of responsibility on a newly ordained priest and not all of them are equipped to handle this well.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense to me. Part of the problem with priestly formation is that we’re trying to train priests to be “everything to everyone.” A good evangelical attitude, to be sure, but an impossible task when applied to practical questions of professionalization.

How can we expect to attract and retain scarce talent within an ever shrinking pool of young Catholic men when the expectations are so high and the benefits so low. It’s one thing to sacrifice a wife and family for a life of heroic service and value -- to live a life that points beyond itself through its role in the sacramental life of the church -- but that’s just not what awaits young men after ordination in today’s priest-scarce economy.

Instead, he’s likely to find himself overwhelmed by the practical needs of a parish. He’ll have to fight to figure out the business side of things -- bill-paying, investing, accounting, payroll -- while simultaneously learning how to manage human resources, plan massive events, and raise an incredible amount of money. Parishioners may thank him by complaining about slight changes they’ve observed, resisting his overall vision for the community, and, unless he’s truly a dynamic speaker, shopping around for other parishes more suited to their tastes.

In short: being a priest sounds like the worst job ever. Who would want to do it?

A Bishop I spoke with today expressed deep worries about this situation. Most men, he told me, just aren’t ready to become pastors by the time they’re promoted to that role. They learn bad habits to survive their first couple years in charge, and -- if they even make it through this trial-by-fire (many don’t) -- it’s likely they’ll find themselves burnt out after fives years with no place to go. “I’ve seen guys self-destruct when they’ve been put in that role,” this Bishop told me. “It’s not easy. There’s a lot of pressure, and not every man who’s called to the priesthood is cut out for it.”

So it’s clear that there’s a problem. But what’s the way forward?

In the next couple posts in this series, I hope to sketch an alternative vision -- though, I’ll admit right off the bat that there are going to be a number of complications. Proposing models that require rearrangements in church hierarchy immediately puts you in pretty dicey theological territory, but I’ll do my best to navigate carefully. My ultimate proposal will be too radical for some -- I think that we have some serious re-imagining to do when it comes to the role of the laity -- but too conservative for others (I don’t think my ultimate proposal will require any changes to Canon Law, for instance).

Still, I think there’s fertile territory in the middle ground, and that’s where I intend to explore. Stay tuned, and give me feedback. If there’s one thing I know for sure at the outset, it’s that this is a big problem, and it’s gonna take all of us to figure it out...