The month-long Synod of Bishops beginning Sept. 30 in the Vatican is examining a long list of items as it focuses upon the role of the bishop in the contemporary Church. It is too soon to tell what priorities will emerge, but if recent events in the United States are any indication, the fostering of priestly vocations will likely emerge as a central and indispensable task for every diocesan bishop.

“The scarcity of vocations in a particular Church ... requires a certain courage in recruiting priests,” states the working document of the Synod. “Today, the vocation to priesthood needs again to be promoted with confidence.”

In fact, the centrality of promoting priestly vocations in the ministry of the bishop is a theme that is heard with increasing frequency and urgency throughout the American episcopate.

“No priesthood, no Eucharist! No Eucharist, no Church!” stated Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis in addressing a conference of newly-appointed bishops last July in Rome. Archbishop Rigali spoke in great detail about creating a “pro-vocation” diocese, stressing the need for personal contact between the bishop and prospective seminarians.

Archbishop Rigali told the new bishops of his efforts to gather names of potential seminarians through his vocations office. Given 100 names, he invited all to a retreat at the seminary. Twenty-three accepted, and he spoke to them four times over the course of a weekend, in addition to an individual meeting with each one. Fifteen applied to enter the seminary, and eleven were accepted.

“All the young men told me that it was very important for them to see the personal interest of the bishop in their lives,” said the archbishop. “The value of being invited to consider a vocation to the priest-hood cannot be over-estimated.”

Archbishop Rigali followed up on that insight by assigning to his new auxiliary, Bishop Timothy Dolan, former Rector of the North American College in Rome, a special responsibility for fostering priestly vocations.

“The day of my priestly ordination was the happiest day of my life,” Bishop Dolan said at his own episcopal ordination last August, an example of new confidence amongst American bishops in proposing the priestly life. The recent success of Bishop Dolan's frank and unapologetic book on the formation of priests, Priests for the Third Millennium, is another sign of a more muscular approach to priestly vocations and the distinctive role of the priest in the Church.

“While dreading that whole sense of the watering-down of priestly identity, an apologizing for the unique call of holy orders, a sense of nervousness that recent years have generated in priests who heard so much about the so-called ‘identity crisis,’ we equally dread the other extreme: the arrogant insistence on prestige and power that history has called clericalism. Clericalism is a deplorable vice in the Church,” wrote Bishop Dolan, indicating that courage and confidence ought not to be confused with clerical privilege.

If you want to pick a highlight of this re-awakening in episcopal confidence about the ordained ministry, a good candidate would be Aug. 6, 2001, in Sleepy Eye, Minn. There, at his installation for the Diocese of New Ulm, Bishop John Nienstadt raised more than a few eyebrows with his declaration that priestly and religious vocations were his “number one priority.”

“The New Evangelization will require the dedicated involvement of lay ministries, but that vocation cannot be gained at the expense of ordained ministers,” said Bishop Nienstadt. “The hierarchy is a constitutive element of the Church established by Jesus Christ and that means without it we do not measure up to what Jesus intended. I am convinced that Jesus is calling young men, and older men as well, to act in his priestly person. My brothers and sisters, we must believe this if we are to be faithful to Christ.”

Calling upon his new diocese to begin a “full-court press” (the Detroit native may have to adopt hockey instead of basketball metaphors now that he has moved west to Minnesota), Bishop Nienstadt was very specific in what that meant.

“Let us remember that vocations come from God, not from us. Jesus gives the grace, only he sustains the call,” he said. “Therefore, I ask that for the next year every meeting on a parish or diocesan level begin with prayers for priestly, religious, diaconal and missionary vocations. I ask every family for the next year to pray for vocations whenever they sit down to bless their food or kneel down to give thanks for their abundance. I ask that for the next year every prayer of the faithful whether at a Eucharistic Celebration or a Scripture service likewise include such a petition for vocations.

“Secondly, our fervent prayer must be accompanied with fasting,” he continued. “Therefore, I ask that for the next year abstinence from meat on Fridays be undertaken specifically for vocations. At first, this may strike you as a simplistic request, but I can assure you that I have experienced in my own life how acceptable such fasting is to God when it is offered with a devoted heart. So that's my heartfelt request of every Catholic in this diocese—prayer and fasting for priestly, religious, diaconal and missionary vocations.”

The link between episcopal leadership and priestly vocations has been noticed outside the Church. The Economist, one of the world's leading international English-language newsmagazines, wrote over the summer about “too few heeding the call” in the United States. The secular magazine did not point the finger though at theological or sociological solutions; perhaps unsurprisingly it adopted a business model. Clarity of mission and good old-fashioned recruiting were cited as reasons that Omaha and Atlanta, to cite the examples they used, have far more vocations than dioceses 10 times their size.

In Omaha, reported The Economist, Archbishop Elden Curtiss spends one tenth of his diocesan budget on recruiting priests, and observes flatly, “the number of vocations a diocese will receive is inversely linked to how liberal [in Catholic doctrine] that diocese has become.”

There are many demands on a bishop's time and energy—the lengthy list of concerns that dominate the current Synod's almost limitless agenda is testament to that. Whether from amongst those concerns the fostering of vocations will emerge as a “number one priority” remains to be seen.

Plain speech on vocations is relatively new in the United States. But it may mark an approach that will be adopted by more and more bishops as they re-evaluate their vocations programs. That logic—and a good dose of courage and confidence—may in fact be a defining mark of a new generation of bishops.