An Indian priest offers bread at an Ash Wednesday service at St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica in Chennai on March 2. (Photo: AFP)
For almost every Catholic family of yesteryear, having a son as a priest, or a daughter as a nun was a source of pride. Why is it that vocations to the Catholic priesthood no longer attract as they once did?
It is a complex question with many answers.
Some of the reasons are demographic: families today are smaller, and parents are reluctant to see an only son (or daughter) pursue a celibate vocation in the Church. After all, the desire for physical posterity is strong everywhere.
Besides, today's employment opportunities are many and far more attractive than in former times. It used to be that the priest was the only educated person in town and his advice was sought on everything that mattered. No longer. Many others today, both men and women, are far better educated and professionally competent than he.
Earlier cultures were feudal and traditionally religious. This means that priests and nuns were accorded a measure of respect and privilege in society.
But as societies become “secularized,” their socio-economic and “this-worldly” values spread and take hold. Far less do spiritual and “otherworldly” values motivate human behavior.
"Changes in contemporary society have indeed impinged upon vocations to the priesthood and religious life"
Or in simpler words, wherever TV comedies displace the family rosary and evening prayer at home, it’s not likely that priesthood or religious life will have any aspirational value at all.
And most of all, today financial success supersedes almost every other value.
So changes in contemporary society have indeed impinged upon vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
But there are also important factors from within that make priesthood or religious life a less than attractive option. These must be faced squarely, and with humility.
Perhaps the first of these is that the Church lives in a ‘time warp’ all her own.
What is a time warp? Simply put, it means being fixed in the past which offers comfort and security, and denies the actuality of the turbulent, unpredictable present.
"The canonical obligations of religious life were perceived as stifling and were rejected in their entirety"
Sometimes it’s a war or a revolution that inflicts traumatic rupture upon individuals or communities. The French Revolution did this in Europe two hundred years ago. Today, even decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, many look back at those times with nostalgia and longing.
A time warp makes it convenient to revert to an age where everything was familiar, safe and respected.
Undoubtedly the most turbulent event in the Church of the last 60 years was the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It broke with centuries of hidebound tradition and an imperial papacy, and ushered in an “open Church”.
The loyal foot soldiers of the Church had always been its dedicated clergy, both diocesan and religious, and thousands of nuns, the mainstay of its educational and welfare system.
Now to the consternation of many, these left in droves. They “gave up their vocations” and made other options, personal choices.
For such as these, it was the experience of freedom that the Council brought. The canonical obligations of religious life were perceived as stifling and were rejected in their entirety — the repressive obligations of celibacy, particularly.
So what really is meant by an “open Church?”
Perhaps the quickest definition was given some years ago by Pope Francis: a Church that is “open to mercy,” and the understanding of human weakness, which is slow to condemn and ostracize, and always ready to accept and forgive.
Francis’s metaphor — a “field hospital” was the most apt description of the Church’s mission.
Earlier, before the council, the Church was quite different. Those who exercised power within it called it a “perfect society.” With the sense of entitlement that most bishops and priests have, they lorded it over ordinary Catholics. Today we know this attitude as ‘clericalism.’
"It moves away from a juridical definition of vocation towards an evangelical, Gospel-based understanding"
It has been responsible for much of the corruption in the Church.
It is the very opposite of dialogue, which Pope Paul VI called “the new way of being church.” He could very well have called it ‘openness.’
Paul even elaborated four ways to engage in dialogue — by living and working together, through study and prayer; and asked that the Church dialogue not just with the world’s religions, but also with secularism and Marxism as a sign of its openness.
Admittedly, it’s been hard for a Church more inclined to condemn than to understand, be it other religions or other customs and ideologies.
Sixty years after the council, it’s still difficult and not practiced enough.
An open Church redefines priesthood and religious life. Most significantly perhaps, it moves away from a juridical definition of vocation towards an evangelical, Gospel-based understanding.
It asks, what did Jesus want his disciples to be? How did he guide them?
A recent survey of American priests (2022) discovered that although most expressed much satisfaction about their way of life, the risk of stress and “burnout” remained always present.
One reason for this was the ever-present danger of false allegations against priests related to child sexual abuse.
But what was most saddening was that most priests cannot confide in their bishops, or look to them for support. They would rather lean on their parishioners and lay friends for help in a crisis. In fact, levels of trust between priests and bishops are steadily falling, a sad commentary on the hierarchy.
We’re far from being an open Church, true. Still, until a minimum of honesty and dialogue is reached, and at every level, more priests, women and young people will seek the freedom they desire elsewhere.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.