The priests at the "Stir into Flame" symposium--of many ages and backgrounds in the Church--were alive with the Spirit and eager to help other men know the profound fulfillment and joy they have found in a life of service and faith.
For many lay readers, vocations talk is about as stirring as, say, the annual parish finance talk: at best, dull; at worst, discomforting. A young man may feel anxious to think God is calling him to a life of service, obedience, and celibacy. For the rest of us: What can we do about the priest shortage, if we are female, married, or don't have sons?
Even if that's how you feel about the topic, please, read on! Just as we cannot sustain the parishes we love, if we ignore the finances, we also cannot sustain the sacramental faith that we love, if we ignore the vocations crisis.
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Jesus' gifts of Eucharist and Reconciliation come to us through the priesthood. The mean age of diocesan priests is 59, which means many, many retirements are looming, while only 440 men were ordained diocesan and religious priests in the United States this year. That's about one new priest for every 155,000 American Catholics.
Given these numbers, bishops have made some painful and unpopular decisions. Managing limited human and capital resources, they try to serve the sacramental needs of as many Catholics as possible. Often, that means that close-knit city parishes with a few hundred families will be merged or closed, because expanding suburban parishes with three or four thousand families are desperate for a second priest to help the overwhelmed pastor. The Diocese of Cleveland closed or merged seventy parishes in the past year-a decision that affected almost one third of parishes with a strong Black presence.
These facts warn us that the "priest shortage" should indeed stir to action any one in a small parish beloved for its Gospel music, Africentric faith formation programs, and inspirational homilies. The math is clear. If we cherish our Church and our parishes, we urgently need more priests.
Role Models Wanted
We also need more African American priests. The US Catholic Conference of Bishops website reports that about 3% of this year's class is African American. That's proportionate to the African American share of the entire Catholic population in the U.S., but it's still only 12 or 13 priests (the demographic data for the ordination class are not complete, so the exact number is unknown). Whether it's a dozen or a baker's dozen, it's not nearly enough men to fill the need for spiritual mentors and vocational role models for the next generation of Black Catholics.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which annually surveys the ordinands, reports that almost one fourth of the priests surveyed in the class of 2010 are foreign born-mostly Africans, Latinos, and Asians. (This is down from 38% a few years ago.) The Josephite community ordained six Nigerian men this year and more are in seminary. African émigrés bring enormous gifts to American parishes. It is not inconsistent to welcome and value how God reaches us through them, even as we acknowledge that the U.S. presbyterate also needs men with indigenous knowledge of culture, norms, language, African American life, and the Catholic Church in the United States.
A Stirring Call
Almost two years ago, Reverend Stephen Thorne, Reverend Patrick Smith, and Reverend Scott Woods (young priests from the Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Baltimore Archdioceses, respectively) began planning a vocations symposium with Valerie Washington, Executive Director of the NBCC. Modeled after a memorable NBCC vocations gathering in 1988, "Stir into Flame -- A Symposium on the Vocation to the Catholic Priesthood in the African American Community" was designed as a rare chance for African American Catholic clergy to share and reflect on the source of their own callings and to strategize how to promote new vocations.
As Father Thorne put it, "The primary goal of the symposium was to create an Action Plan to assist in fostering vocations to the priesthood in the African American Catholic community, engaging all the Church--priests and the faithful." NBCC invited almost thirty African American men to gather on the campus of the University of Notre Dame for three days in early May.
The bishops, priests, and a permanent deacon evidently were inspired by the invitation to stir their vocational gifts into flame. Every one accepted the invitation, despite early May being busy with graduations, confirmations, and more. Seven bishops participated-some going to extraordinary trouble to be there. Bishop Edward Braxton made two round trips to South Bend in 24 hours, so he could be present while keeping a commitment in his diocese. Bishop George Murry S.J. drove five hours from Youngstown, spoke on the "History of African American Catholic Priests" to an enthralled audience, and then turned around to drive home for a Baccalaureate Mass.
Confreres in Conversation
Diocesan and religious, young and older, the priests came to the symposium from many parts of the country and vastly different congregations and experiences. In presentations, panels, and discussions, the clergy acknowledged the challenges of today's priesthood-the time consumed by budgeting and fundraising, the sacrifices of living a single and celibate life, and clergy sex scandals that tarnished all with the sins of a few. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, these were not prominent themes.
In a closed, intimate environment of their peers where frank discussion was uniquely possible, the priests described their joyful satisfaction with a life built around service, faith, and leadership. As a lay observer, I was impressed with the profound sense of fulfillment that priests reported from being able to provide the Eucharist to the people of God. In his keynote address, Father Patrick Smith outlined the "Identity and Mission of the Priest," and reflected powerfully on the vital role of daily prayer in a priest's life.
Reviewing the qualities of a good candidate for the priesthood, a bishop mentioned, without irony, that a good priest is obedient. Later, in individual interviews, some of the ordained men said they find obedience, not celibacy, is the toughest vow to keep.
The same bishop also suggested that a Black priest in America has to move comfortably in many social, racial, and cultural environments, which means a strong sense of personal identity is essential. Frank discussions about identity ensued, revealing some consensus, but also generational, geographic, and experiential differences. For example, African American identity did not enter into work roles and relationships in the same way for a very young priest working at a multicultural school in California as for a middle-aged priest serving a predominantly Black parish in a large, East Coast city.
One panel included presentations by students discussing their concerns and discernments. One panelist had chosen marriage, but continues studies to be a lay theologian. Another, a high school student, expects to enter seminary; his proud mother explained that, even as a young boy, he had brought others in the family closer to the Lord.
It's Good to Be Asked
After having the privilege of attending the symposium as a fly on the wall, listening to the priests and bishops discuss their life's work, I now see the topic of vocations in a new light. The facts show the topic is urgent, but now my heart knows the topic is uplifting, as well.
Vocations work, I realized, is not merely recruitment-although there is some of that-and much less is it about putting pressure on reluctant young men. When God calls, it's because He has a good plan for our lives. He's offering an opportunity, not a burden. The priests at the symposium expressed deep fulfillment in doing God's work through ordained ministry. Their love of the sacraments and the priesthood was palpable.
Many priests at the symposium said they answered God's call because of the encouragement and role models provided through devout parents and teachers. They recounted childhood memories of family rosaries, altar service, and parochial schools. Many said they had been inspired to explore the priesthood because a religious sister, teacher, or priest had taken time to nurture and guide their young faith or to help them recognize their gifts for the work of the priesthood.
Evangelization at Work
The symposium consensus was that relationships and role models are crucial to discernment. The clergy urged each other to become more actively attuned to opportunities for mentoring and spiritual guidance. They said they became priests because they knew priests whose lives seemed interesting and valuable and so they urged each other to allow parishioners to know them as multifaceted people, with hobbies and athletic interests, with imperfections, and also with joyful satisfaction in the work they get to do for God.
By the end of the symposium, I understood that promoting vocations is not dull nor is it someone else's job. I was uplifted by the realization that the work of vocations is inseparable from the work of evangelization. Everything we do as a Church to evangelize others-family devotions, liturgy and prayer, acts of charity and solidarity and advocacy, catechism and faith formation, youth and young adult ministries, holy day observances and traditional pieties-all of this also provides nurturing soil for vocations to bloom. Vocations will happen when all of us are doing the work of the Gospel, reaching out to young people to share our faith, our traditions, and our love of the Lord.
A Plan of Action
The bishops and priests didn't travel to South Bend for three days just for camaraderie, beautiful spring weather, and the chance for two-dozen African Americans to concelebrate daily Mass for the Notre Dame campus community. Guided by Don Pope-Davis, Vice-President and Associate Provost at the University of Notre Dame, who facilitated the symposium, the participants devised an agenda for action, with commitments and timelines over the next year.
Action will focus on three areas where vocations are sowed and nurtured-family, community, and education. Many of the steps proposed in the symposium action plan would be means of developing deeply spiritual and faithful people, whether or not they become priests. These include: family prayer and devotions; opportunities to participate in parish and liturgy as sacristans, servers, and lectors; relationships with faith-filled mentors; service projects; better training of catechists and CCD teachers; and good spiritual direction.
Other steps involve interactions that enable young people to know more about the priesthood and to think of it as a possible future to consider. These steps include religious guest-speakers at school; prayer for vocations; homilies about vocations; or family-oriented materials that discuss the priesthood.
Some action steps are more explicitly about outreach or what, in another field, would be called "recruitment": home visits; invitations to dinner; a videotape on the joys of the priesthood; vocations websites; exposure to seminary life; vocations study-groups and houses of discernment.
Participants identified many steps specifically to support young African American men in developing their faith; to help them see themselves, and be seen by others, as future priests; and to thrive in seminary. These steps include: the Notre Dame Vision summer program for youth; resources about Black priests; pilgrimages to Black Catholic sites; service projects focused in the Black community; exposing seminary faculty to Black Catholicism; a buddy system for Black seminarians; and outreach to diocesan vocations offices.
Dr. Pope-Davis did not let the planning end with a copious list of ideas for action. Every one who attended the symposium committed to work on one of three committees that are working through the summer of 2010 to form concrete implementation plans by September. The subsequent nine months will be used to begin implementation of the highest priority activities. Notre Dame has invited NBCC to reconvene next spring on campus to evaluate progress and consider what's next.
We Can't Do It Alone
Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life and its director, Dr. John Cavadini, was a generous partner in the vocations symposium, providing faculty involvement, excellent facilities, and gracious hospitality. Dr. Don Pope-Davis was essential both to making the event possible at Notre Dame and to skillfully facilitating the working sessions. Grants to the NBCC from Our Sunday Visitor Institute, the Lilly Endowment, Black & Indian Missions, the Martin de Porres Foundation, and an anonymous donor made the planning, participants' travel, and follow-up possible.
All in all, the symposium felt inspired and hopeful, as readers will see from the personal reflections in this newsletter from priests who participated. One suspects that Father Augustus Tolton was busy in Heaven interceding on behalf of this symposium on African American vocations--because it was evident that many good people helped answer prayers for its success. With further prayers and comparable collaborations to carry out the action plan, we can hope for dozens of African American ordinations in the class of 2020.