"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, July 23, 2007

The wisdom of the children of darkness

This vocations article in the Raleigh News and Observer is headlined in the usual, predictable way. But I found it worth a look for two reasons. One was that Michael Brown found it worth linking to; the other was that I know some quite spiritual people in that diocese, having spent some time there for several purposes, one of which was to pursue church jobs, unsuccessfully, in 2002 and 2004. Sure enough, I found in the article a golden nugget of that wisdom which unbelievers sometimes pick up faster than many churchgoing Catholics.

Here's the passage that caught my attention:

In the Diocese of Raleigh, which spans 54 counties from Chatham to Dare, there is one priest for every 1,791 Catholics. Nine small parishes have no priests, and mega-parishes strain at the seams with round-the-clock masses every weekend to accommodate an ever-burgeoning Catholic population.

Since Bishop Burbidge arrived in Raleigh last year, he has added a monthly service to pray for more priests. To encourage teens to consider the priesthood, he even refereed a basketball game of seminarians versus students from St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh. So far, eight men have responded to the call -- an impressive feat that brings the number of seminarians in the diocese this coming school year to 21.

"I'm thrilled with how the awareness has been heightened," Burbidge said recently.

Scholars say that might not be enough. Dean Hoge, a leading expert on the priest shortage, estimates that efforts by bishops such as Burbidge might result in a 10 percent increase in priests at a time when the church needs a 100 percent increase.

"A 10 percent increase is fine," said Hoge, a professor of sociology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "Is it going to solve the problem? No."

But there is a curious thing about the new crop of Catholic priests. Many of them, such as Burbeck, who is 23, have a passionate commitment to the Catholic Church. At a time when many Catholics blame their priests for the horrific cases of sexual abuse of children, Burbeck said that in embracing the church, he felt not qualms but clarity.

"That's the reason I was created," Burbeck said referring to his desire to become a priest. "That's the meaning of my life."

Bishop Burbidge ordained eight new priests this year, which isn't enough to compensate for both retirements and deaths among priests and the inexorable burgeoning of the laity. But if Michael Burbeck is any indication of the attitude of incoming seminarians, Burbidge will be ordaining priests at an accelerating rate in the future. I found myself pumping my fist after reading this story.

The spiritual commitment of the Michael Burbecks in the Church is infectious. They do not aspire to the priesthood so as to escape anything. They do not seek it out as a career or as a mark of social status. They don't even see it as a "vocation" in the generic sense, which could apply just as well to mothers, doctors, or first responders. What's happened in the American Church over the last several decades makes the inadequacy of all such motivations painfully evident. No, they enter the seminary because they recognize that what they're there for is simply to become who they are in Jesus Christ, their chief love in life. They choose it not because it's something they'd like to do, but because it's simply who they have been created, in love, to be. The choice is so clear that it's hardly a choice at all.

I've known a few other guys like that. They are now terrific priests. The Holy Spirit is calling many such men. I resist my temptation to envy them by exercising the priesthood of believers: offering my own sufferings partly for them. I have no doubt that is efficacious, especially in conjunction with adoration of the Eucharist outside Mass. It sustains and augments the clergy, especially the higher clergy. Indeed, if more bishops like Michael Burbidge are appointed, more seminarians like Michael Burbeck will keep coming to the fore across this country and become terrific priests in their turn. They will do so despite massive incomprehension and resistance, not just from the world but including and especially from within the bosom of the Church. Such is the leadership we need; if we pray, love, and believe as we ought, such is the leadership we will get.
blog comments powered by Disqus