All Christians must live out their calling
By Connie Berry
According to an online article in Forbes magazine, the number one job in a list of the “ten happiest jobs” is clergy. The list comes from research concluded by a General Social Survey by the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago. The writer, Steve Denning, even concludes that “The least worldly are reported to be happiest of all.” One would think a very long line would form to sign up for a job so fulfilling, especially at a time when so many other aspects of life seem transitory.
Unfortunately, there’s no disputing that the number of active clergy in the northeast is in decline and the number of men in seminary are not enough to make up the difference. Father Jim Lang, Vicar for Parishes, has spent decades studying the numbers of clergy and the needs of the parishes in the Syracuse Diocese. At least since the 1980s, there have been documents written and gatherings attended to address the fact that at some point, priests would be retiring in high numbers with fewer priests coming in to replace them. The time for all that to come to fruition is now, or maybe yesterday.
For people in the pews, it translates to fewer priests available to provide the sacraments exactly the way they always have. A parish made up of a pastor, a few associates, a dozen sisters and a filled-to-capacity parish school is not a realistic picture in this part of the U.S. today. Rather than take that news as an indication that God has abandoned his people and the Catholic Church is on the brink of disaster, Father Lang suggests this: “God has always been with his church. He is not going to leave it now. Not now, not ever.”
“Where’s the faith?” one might ask.
Adjusting to change is difficult for most people, Father Lang explained, much less looking at a church that has changed drastically in just the last 50 years. “The first thing we should be doing is trusting in God,” Father Lang said. “If He is truly calling us to a level of discernment, we need to listen. We need to have confidence that God, who got us through the past 2,000 years and gave us this great history, is not abandoning the church. He does not need our permission to do what He wants to do.”
What should the Body of Christ do?
Get to church. Don’t be afraid. Get involved in the life of your church. It may change, but it always has changed, Father Lang said.
“The church also believes that beneath the changes are those realities that never change and key among these is Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Our church tells us that an ordained priest is needed to consecrate the Eucharist,” Father Lang said. “We still must have the ordained for our sacraments, which is the foundation of the church.”
There are those who say the priest shortage would be solved if women were to be ordained or married clergy the norm. Father Lang responded that, “When one takes a serious look at all mainline churches with married clergy and ordained women, you will see that sustaining their numbers of ordained is even more of a significant challenge than we’re facing.” There is also the matter that the Vatican has made it very clear women will not be ordained and that priests will not marry. Given those two realities, the question becomes how do we serve the people and lead the church with fidelity? “The church of Rome is truly global rather than a series of independent churches,” Father Lang said.
The church has evolved over the years and survived transition after transition, he said. Right now, Father Lang said, we have the parish system. There may be another system next. There was no parish system 500 years ago. “What will be next? It’s not fully clear yet,” Father Lang said.
The latest models within the diocese include churches collaborating with one another, priests serving more than one parish, deacons and religious serving the parish, lay people actively ministering and becoming certified ministers for their parishes. The changes mean some churches have closed, but they also mean people are learning how to collaborate effectively and they are learning how to move beyond the reality that their Mass time has changed.
In the meantime, the number of seminarians studying for the priesthood is higher than it was a few years ago. No one is scheduled for ordination in 2012, but God willing, there are three who will be ordained the next year. Father Joe O’Connor is diocesan director of the Office of Vocation Promotion. He spends his time speaking at parishes, schools, going to events proclaiming the great gift of discernment and asking parents, lay people, religious, clergy – anyone and everyone to pray for vocations. And more than that, talk about vocations so that someone who may think he or she is being called feels the support, love and understanding so that they can pursue that vocation.
Vocations are for everyone, Father O’Connor says. “Every baptized Christian has a sharing in the priestly life. That was conferred when the oil of Chrism was poured over the head of the newly-baptized,” he said. “This task is often only taken up later in life. I call it the ‘vocation within the vocation.’ After settling into married life or single life, Christians begin to realize that there are people around them that need the presence of Christ, and it is their calling to be that light, not their parish priest.”
The give-and-take between laity and the priesthood can be beautiful, Father O’Connor said.
“As the laity take up their own calling within their calling, they realize even more their need for the ordained priesthood. They need the visible head of Christ to promote unity through the Sacrament of Reconciliation,” Father O’Connor said. “They need to receive Jesus Christ in the Eucharist to strengthen their presence of Christ in the community. As church members renew their own vocations, it will necessarily spark a resurgence of religious vocations. That is the mutual support that St. Paul spoke of in his letter to the Thessalonians, ‘encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you do.’” (1 Thes 5:11)
Rather than having the two aspects at odds or in different corners, the laity and ordained and religious need each other to truly fulfill their vocations. Father O’Connor said the wonderful ministries that lay people do every day means they are often in places that the ordained priest cannot necessarily get to.
“In a word, they are the priests in places that our ordained priests could never reach,” Father O’Connor said. “That amazing ministry needs to be fueled and strengthened by the sacraments. This is where the ordained priest offers a unique presence – ‘in persona Christi Capitis’ – in the person of Christ the Head.”
When Father Lang was ordained in 1974, there were 400 priests serving in the diocese. Today there are 240, of which 105 are retired. The population of Catholics in Central New York has declined as well. Society as a whole has changed. Families spend weekends just as busy as the work week. The growth of evangelical churches seems to be on the rise. Industry has left the region. The factors present today are not the same as they were in 1974. But, as Bishop Robert Cunningham wrote in a previous column, statistics are not meant to discourage the faithful but to provide a clearer understanding of the situation.
While everything around them has changed, the expectations people place on their parish priest have not changed, Father Lang mentioned. Peoples’ lives are based on a schedule, he explained, everyone has a favorite Mass time, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of habit. There are fewer priests available and the Catholic population is smaller so therefore there will be fewer Masses available. All these things combined are leading to transition and change – not something most people accept easily.
“Have courage,” Father Lang says. “Join us in imagining the next step. We’re not stagnant. Creation is an ongoing reality and we need to vision together what our future will be. Relax folks. In the meantime, everybody needs to think of themselves as a vocation director. God is with us now, the question is have we stopped believing?”
As soon as everyone realizes their vocation within their vocation and begins living that vocation with love, Father O’Connor said, there will be more vocations.
“It [this story] is an important reminder of the importance of all vocations being lived well,” Father O’Connor said. “When that is done, when married people embrace the life of mutual self-giving and single people give without counting the cost, I am sure that religious vocations will flourish. The more that our society places value and importance on generous loving, the more normal it will be for young people to consider becoming religious sisters, brothers and priests.”
If you feel called, listen, Father Lang said. For more information on parishes, call Father Lang at (315) 470-1437. For more information on vocations, call Father O’Connor at (315) 470-1468 or visit www.vocations-syracuse.org.