It was fully my intention to have all of the Winona-Rochester seminarians stand at one point during my installation Mass homily. I had told the people that, in the words of John Paul II, ecclesia de eucharistia (the Church comes from the Eucharist), and since the Eucharist comes from priests, it logically follows that if there are no priests, there will be no Church. So I wanted everyone to see and acknowledge the young men in our diocese who are actively discerning a call to this indispensably important way of life. During the ovation, something came to me as an inspiration. I hadn’t planned to say it. It wasn’t in my text. But I blurted out, as the applause was dying down, “Let’s double their number in the next five years!” A confirmation that this was perhaps from the Holy Spirit is that people, at every stop I’ve made so far in the diocese, have, with enthusiasm, echoed those words back to me. In fact, the leader of one of the Serra groups has told me that she and her colleagues have decided to take up the challenge.
We have twenty seminarians, at both the college and major theology levels, which is pretty good for a diocese our size. And we have a wonderful coterie of priests, both active and “retired,” who are busily serving our nearly one hundred parishes. But those under retirement age number only around sixty, and all of our priests are stretched thin. Furthermore, there will be no priestly ordinations in Winona-Rochester for the next two years. So, there is no question: We need more priests.
Now, bishops and priests do indeed have a key role to play in the encouragement of vocations. What draws a young man to the priesthood is, above all, the witness of happy, healthy priests. Some years ago, the University of Chicago conducted a survey to determine which professions were the happiest. By a rather large margin, those deemed most content were members of the clergy. Moreover, a variety of surveys have demonstrated that, despite the troubles of recent years, Catholic priests report very high levels of personal satisfaction with their lives. Given these data, one recommendation I would make to my brother priests is this: Let people see it! Let them know how much joy you take in being a priest.
But I believe that lay people have an even more important role to play in the cultivation of vocations. Within the Protestant context, sometimes the son of a great preacher follows in his father’s footsteps so that one minister effectively begets another. But this, for obvious reasons, can’t happen in a Catholic setting. Instead, priests, without exception, come from lay people; they come from families. The decency, prayerfulness, kindness, and encouragement of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, and uncles make an enormous difference in the fostering of a vocation to the priesthood. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is of my father, kneeling in intense prayer after Communion one Sunday at St. Thomas More Parish in Troy, Michigan. I was only five or six at the time, and I considered my father the most powerful man on earth. That he was kneeling in supplication before someone more powerful shaped my religious imagination profoundly and, as you can tell, I’ve never forgotten the moment. Both of my parents loved and respected priests and made sure that we kids had steady contact with them. Trust me, their openness of spirit in regard to priests affected my vocation deeply.
And please remember that non-family members can light the flame of a vocation as well. Study after study has shown that one of the most important factors in convincing a young man to enter the seminary is that a trusted friend, colleague, or elder told him that he would make a good priest. I know that there are lots of folks who harbor in their hearts the conviction that a young man should enter the seminary, for they have noticed his gifts of kindness, prayerfulness, intelligence, etc., but they have never summoned the courage or taken the time to tell him. Perhaps they’ve assumed that others have done so. But this is tragically to miss an opportunity. I would say simply this: if you have remarked virtues in a young man that would make him an effective priest, assume that the Holy Spirit has given you this insight so that you might share it with that young man. Believe me, the plainest words you speak could be seeds that will bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.
Finally, if you feel strongly about vocations, pray for them. In the Bible, nothing of moment is ever accomplished apart from prayer. God delights in our cooperation with his grace, but the work of salvation is, at the end of the day, his. So ask him! Might I suggest a particular intercessor in this regard? Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, said that she entered the convent “in order to save souls and especially to pray for priests.” She also said that she would spend her heaven doing good on the earth. Let us, therefore, petition her intercession as we ask the Lord to double the number of our seminarians in the coming years.