While I would not of course call him insane personally, the director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles' Office of Vocations is reliably channeling what I can only call a kind of insanity that is prevalent among relatively "progressive" bishops. Fr. James Forsen has written for that diocese's widely circulated newspaper an article on the shortage of priestly vocations there. His etiology is accurate as far as it goes, as are his prescriptions. But they offer nothing new. That is a problem because it betrays ignorance of the most important cause.
I've written about this topic before, and I stand by what I wrote. But let's look at Fr. Forsen's prescriptions:
- Talk About It. If vocations are not on your radar, how can we expect that it will be on the radar of young people? Appreciate the priests and religious you have. Work with them so that the attractiveness of Catholic life in general and priestly and religious life in particular, are evident. If the priesthood sounds and looks like a "problem," it's no surprise that potential candidates keep their distance.
- Make It A Pastoral Priority. Talk to your pastoral council or members of the parish staff about the importance of keeping church vocations in the spotlight in your parish. Vocation work can easily get crowded out if it isn't one of a parish's pastoral priorities. See if the pastor and the pastoral council would consider appointing one person to be responsible to do vocation promotion in your parish in an on-going manner.
- Play To Our Strength. Nothing is more attractive than a disciple following the example of Jesus in his or her life, and a lot of that example was and remains counter-cultural. We must live by Jesus' different set of values, a life where "It isn't about me, it's about you," a life where there is something greater than the dollar or the status or the attention, a life worth sacrificing for the sake of others. That will foster in some the needed desire to love the people of God—to be with them when they are sick, to comfort the family when someone has died, to courageously champion the rights of those oppressed, to be willing to lay down one's life through care for God's people, even to the point of willingly sacrificing the happiness of being independent or having one's own family.
Now there's absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. The problem is what it leaves out. That so many bishops and their subordinates keep on leaving it out signifies a kind of insanity.
As one of Fr. Forsen's interviewees put it, the priesthood is "not even on the radar screeen" of most teenage boys and young men. That is true, and he agreed with her. But why is it true? Necessary as it is, will any of the above suffice to put the priesthood on their radar screen? Fr. Forsen seems to think so. Yet, while many priests and pastors, even in LA, do what he suggests, in his and many other dioceses we're not exactly seeing a throng headed for the seminary. What's the problem?
Given my experience as a lifelong active Catholic, a seminary applicant in youth, a seminary teacher in young adulthood, and a friend of several seminarians and young priests now, I see the problem as the culture of progressive Catholicism itself. Dioceses run by frankly orthodox, old-fashioned bishops, such as that of Lincoln, Nebraska, are having no trouble attracting a good and healthy pool of seminarians. Traditionalist movements, such as the FSSP, have no trouble with that either. But dioceses not run by such bishops are having such trouble. Why?
Los Angeles is a good example of what I'm talking about. Cardinal Roger Mahony is counter-cultural about immigration and health care, but not about birth control, homosexuality, liturgy, and ascesis. He is a dedicated priest, but says nothing to explain the spiritual power of consecrated celibacy and exalts lay ministry as vitally important. He urges Catholics to bring their faith to public life, but opposes disciplining Catholic "pro-choice" politicians. Even as he's engaged in a running battle with government to keep the Archdiocese's sex-abuse files confidential, he refuses to acknowledge that homosexuality in the priesthood was the major contributing factor to the original scandal. Most of the altar servers in his and many other dioceses are girls. He welcomes Rainbow Sashers to communion but won't allow easy access in his diocese to the indult Tridentine Mass. Even his $194-million new cathedral has won good reviews mostly from those who haven't outgrown Bauhaus. Accordingly, the vision of Catholicism and of serving Christ presented by Mahony is doctrinally selective, sexually ambiguous, aesthetically impoverished, and not entirely honest. In other words, it well exemplifies the culture of progressive Catholicism. As a result and regardless of intent, the message about priesthood conveyed by Mahony and like-minded bishops is that of an underpaid, sex-starved profession for effeminates, one that affords little opportunity to accomplish something valuable that couldn't just as well be accomplished in other, more gratifying ways. How could that be on young men's radar screens?
Give us more Bruskewitzs (see 'Lincoln' above), Chaputs, and Curtisses instead. Then we'll see a lot more vocations.