Monday, January 23, 2012
Planning For Vocations
When it comes to priests, not every priestly vocation is identical. Parish priests--even if they have a significant draw towards the monastic life--aren't monks. Similarly, parish priests and missionaries are distinct expressions of the priestly life. Of course, there are always aspects of each expression that inform the others. The life of a monastic in some ways can inform a parish priest about his prayer life. Having a parish priest who is devoted to the Liturgy and to a life of prayer is a good thing. But, a parish priest isn't a monk. A parish priest ought to have a missionary zeal. But, he is not a missionary.
When I was first ordained, I lived with a retired missionary priest. His stories of travelling from one village to the next were certainly exciting and there's a little part of me that desires that kind of life. But, I know that is not my vocation. I was called to the diocesan priesthood. Missionaries go to establish the Church in a particular place. But, their goal is not to keep things in that particular state. Their goal is to establish the Church and then allow those communities to solidify and become true local churches with their own clergy. The ideal is not an itinerant priesthood. The ideal is to establish stable communities with stable shepherds.
Recently, the parishes in my city have been working together to develop a pastoral plan. This is, in large part, due to a reduction in available clergy. Where the whole thing ends up is not known yet, but, I am struck by the thoughtful way that the laity in the parishes are examining the issues. They are not in favor of models that will increase rivalry and competiveness between parishes. They favor models where people are brought into deeper unity with one another. They do not favor models where their priest(s) will become more remote. They strongly prefer models that strengthen the bond between priest and people. It seems to me (and the discussions are only in the beginning stages) that they prefer models that favor strengthening the communion between priest and people and are far more reticent about models that risk making the parish priest more obscure.
One of the major issues confronting dioceses (and thus, parishes) is a shortfall of priestly vocations. Any pastoral plan ought to take into consideration how it will affect priestly vocations. A pastoral plan that makes parish priests more dispensable, interchangeable, and remote will, I think, have a negative impact upon priestly vocations. It would be interesting to do a study of parishes from where seminarians are coming and use that as a basis of pastoral planning. Do parishes that have more priests and that have stability of pastoral leadership produce more vocations or do parishes that have more frequent turnover of priests have more vocations? Do dioceses where priests are spread out more thinly have more priestly vocations or do dioceses with fewer parishes but with more priestly presence in those parishes have more vocations?
As you might surmise, I approach these questions with a bias towards particular answers. But, my evidence is only anecdotal. I was raised in a parish that had many priests assigned to it, had stable pastoral leadership and produced many priestly vocations. I'm in a parish now that has four men studying to be ordained (two religious and two diocesan). My bias is to believe that parishes that have stable leadership, good priests and seminarians living and working together, and that have priests who are evidently happy in their vocation produce vocations. I am inclined to think that vocations work in a parish takes time and contact. The more a priest is able to spend time with young people in a parish, the more likely vocations will come from that parish. The more a priest is able to spend time with parish families, visiting classrooms, hearing confessions, and youth events, the more vocations will floursish. I am inclined to think that the less a parish sees of its priest, the less vocations will be produced in that parish. But, I'd be really interested to know what the statistics show.
I know that pastoral planning involves many complicated factors. But, it seems that if we are going to do something that will have long-lasting implications, we want to get it right. I'd like to throw this question concerning priestly vocations into the mix. What pastoral plan is most likely to produce more priestly vocations? It seems that's a question for which we need an answer.