An Argument Against the Church’s ‘Vocations Crisis’
Why such terminology is not only untrue, but harmful
Recently, I was going over Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (On the Celibacy of the Priest). Written in 1967, its relevance and insight have not dimmed with the passing of 50-plus years. And though it is a treasure-trove of wisdom, I found myself returning many times in prayer and thought to one particular paragraph, a short paragraph couched under the title of “The Hidden Wisdom of God.” Here it is in its entirety:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ did not hesitate to confide the formidable task of evangelizing the then-known world to a handful of men to all appearances lacking in number and quality. He bade this little flock not to lose heart, for, thanks to his constant assistance, through him and with him, they would overcome the world. Jesus has also taught us that the kingdom of God has an intrinsic and unobservable dynamism which enables it to grow ‘without [man’s] knowing it.’ The harvest of God’s kingdom is great, but the laborers, as in the beginning, are few. Actually, they have never been as numerous as human standards would have judged sufficient. But the heavenly King demands that we pray ‘the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’ The counsels and prudence of man cannot supersede the hidden wisdom of him who, in the history of salvation, has challenged man’s wisdom and power by his own foolishness and weakness” (No. 47).
“They [the laborers] have never been as numerous as human standards would have judged sufficient.” That sentence, above all the others, rang like the Angelus bell, calling me, a vocations director, to stop and pray.
Is There a Crisis?
I do not know who first coined the phrase “vocations crisis” or where and when it began to be used. Suffice it to say, the term has become an unmistakable part of Church parlance. But is it true? Does the word crisis accurately describe where we find ourselves as a Church regarding vocation? I posit that not only is it largely inaccurate, but it is also dangerous.
We have been told from the beginning that the harvest is plentiful, but laborers are few. Therefore we are to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (cf. Lk 10:2). We must grant that the term laborers is not limited to religious vocations, but it certainly includes them. We have always had the duty to pray for more religious and priestly vocations. This is neither new nor unforeseen.
To suggest we have reached such an extreme of vocational poverty that it warrants calling it a crisis seems to ignore this early command and cast subtle doubt on God’s providential care. Further, to speak of a vocations crisis quietly affirms the misguided vitriol of modernists of every age that cry out that the Church is somehow less relevant and out of touch. When Our Lord began to establish a Church that moved away from the Levitical priesthood — a priesthood one was born into — to a priesthood of the called, in which a person has the freedom to reject that call, he surely knew the quantitative result would be both less in number and predictability. Crisis simply does not fit the lexicon of an Easter people — that is, a people of the Resurrection.
Beyond being a misnomer of faith, there is a real danger on the practical side. To start, does using the word crisis inspire anyone to join the cause? Does it lift the spirits of priests to live their vocation more joyfully, more authentically?
In this shallowest of appraisals, the word crisis is unhelpful. If we venture deeper we find yet greater perils. As one who works in the field of vocations, I have witnessed firsthand the dangerous attitude of desperation that can come from this feeling of crisis. It can induce a line of thinking that is willing to try anything: vocation campaigns that are more campaign than a vocation.
Danger of Low Standards
It is true we must at times try new things and, in our modern era, harness modern tools and media. However, we must walk a careful line and not commoditize vocations and treat them like mere recruitment. A true calling can only arise from God. We can facilitate the hearing of that call, or confirm the interior movements of the Spirit, but we cannot create ex nihilo.
If we take approaches that try to sell others on religious or priestly vocations, woe to us, and perhaps we deserve the buyers we receive! From that same polluted well of fear comes the related action that accepts men for seminary, who, in character, are conspicuously ill-equipped and poorly suited. The long-term jeopardy is obvious enough should such a man be ordained a priest. Yet the short-term injury, which takes place regardless of whether the man is ordained or not, is that such low standards produce harmful effects on a seminary community and the dutifully discerning men.
In recent years in the United States, this feeling of calamity in part rises from a memory of the not-so-distant past, when vocations were abundant and the seminaries were full. This idyllic recollection should be tempered by at least two other realities.
The first being the plague of sexual abuse that has come to light over the last two decades. Multiple factors lay behind these deplorable crimes. Yet, it would seem that some of these men who were in these full seminaries might not have been there for the right reasons. I am not saying they started seminary with intrinsic evil in mind. Rather, perhaps they had come for any number of lesser or human reasons: prestige, family pressure, a comfortable life, an escape.
Regardless of the reason, anything less than an invitation from the Lord to follow him in a profound and life-altering relationship is inadequate. I am not a historian, but I would be very interested to see, over the centuries, what followed moments where, across the culture, seminaries or monasteries reached their zenith of population. I am suspicious that if we looked beyond the numbers, there might be negative correlatives with swelled ranks.
The second mitigating factor we must keep in mind when looking back on the days of full seminaries is the long-term historical reality. If you look over the centuries of the Church, it does not present a steady rising line.
The history of the Church is one of expansion and contraction, expansion and contraction. Do we call it a crisis when we exhale and our lungs contract? Only if they do not or cannot expand again! Though admittedly minimal, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate studies have shown a consistent rise in priestly ordinations since the year 2000. This has happened despite a Church shadowed by scandal.
A State of Tension
If not a crisis, what then? Tension. We are in a state of tension. This is the hidden wisdom of God, and hence a good. The Lord sees not as man sees (cf. 1 Sm 16:7). As Pope Paul VI pointed out, the prevalence in history is being short on the desired number of vocations. Time and time again, the laborers have seemed too few, and yet Christianity has marched across the globe.
Tension is often considered a negative thing. Yet how many simple machines require a measured amount of tension to be able to perform the task for which they were made? Perhaps we are not so different. How many of us, when we have a rare free day, without pressing or immediate obligations, have great plans and yet achieve very little? Then there are those days where the world, or our jobs, or families, or all three place significant demands upon us and we, in turn, rise and give greatly of ourselves and accomplish much.
When there is tension, a shortage of time or workers, we are forced to prioritize. There are many good things a priest can be busy with, but if there is only one priest, he must prioritize what is truly important. He must say no to more and more, which though unpleasant and contrary to many a priest’s nature, is a psychologically and strategically healthy thing to do.
Role of the Baptized
When there are too few of us priests, the laity, who the Church belongs to equally, whose responsibilities are not less just different, must step more to the forefront and we as priests must let them. The salvation of souls, evangelization of our culture and the praise of God are not relegated solely to the ordained and the religiously vowed. Those tasks belong to all the baptized!
And for some, dire necessity is the only thing that will convince a priest to let go or a parishioner to step forward. If only we were more saintly and such decisions did not need to be thrust upon us. But we are not. At times, we must be strong-armed into starting, but we often finish under our own volition. We discover a joy we did not believe was for us, a talent we did not think we had, or a love we did not know we wanted. “You seduced me, Lord, and I let myself be seduced” (Jer 20:7).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, tension holds within its grasp the timeless lesson of humility. Every age, every generation, every person must learn this lesson. Our want, our continual hunger for more vocations teaches us dependence. If we had all the priests we needed, it would be too easy to ascribe that success to ourselves, to think that God’s kingdom has come because of our sterling character, our genius or our strategies. It is so often our need that drives us to take a knee and make a petition from our hearts.
To remember, though we work hard and invite many to consider a religious or priestly vocation, it is God and God alone who must call. We only direct traffic. “Unless the LORD build the house, / they labor in vain who build. … It is vain for you to rise early / and put off your rest at night” (Ps 127:1-2).
What We Want
All of this is not to say when it comes to vocations we are doing fine. We are not at the ideal, maybe not even at the halfway mark to ideal. We want more vocations. We should work to promote vocations and share the joy and the gift that is the priesthood and religious life.
We need to find ways to push back on our culture to enable those who are being called by God to better hear the still, quiet voice of the divine. Yet we must do so from an honest appraisal of where we are. If we have an imagined and unrealistic quota, a false image that tells us we are failing, that is emotionally and spiritually defeating.
It is an outlook that can easily lead to despair, which is frequently the language of the Evil One, and never the language of God. Yes, there is a gap between what we want and what we have. In God’s plan of tension, that gap may never disappear this side of heaven, but we can and should work to narrow it.
To challenge ourselves and others to be willing to abandon the comfortable and mediocre is to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom. We should beseech Our Lord, on our knees, that he grants our world more gifts by way of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. We have a map. We have the tools. We are not in crisis. The road forward is the same as it has always been. It leads through him who is the way and the truth and the life.
FATHER CHAD ARNOLD is a priest of the Diocese of Wichita and serves as vocations director and assistant director of the new House of Formation.
The gift of the priesthood
St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, says “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”
St. John Vianney wanted to be a priest more than anything. After struggling with academics in seminary, especially Latin, he was ordained and assigned to his home parish. He was sent to pastor a parish in Ars, France. His pastoral zeal and love for souls stretched beyond Ars, and soon people were coming by the trainload to visit the small parish to hear St. John Vianney preach. He spent hours in the confessional. Today, he is the patron saint of parish priests and the model of what it means to love the heart of Jesus.
Father Chad Arnold observes that we can never be in crisis as long as that love exists. It is foolish to think we must make something attractive that is already wonderful beyond words. The road forward is the same as it has always been: To teach the truth and love of Christ.