Jim Graves is a Catholic writer and editor living in Newport Beach, California. He previously served as Managing Editor for the Diocese of Orange Bulletin, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Orange, California. His work has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, Cal Catholic Daily and Catholic World Report.
A key focus of any diocesan bishop is going to be vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In recent years, I have spoken to a number of bishops on the subject of vocations; here are some thoughts they have shared.
Michael Barber, SJ, Bishop of Oakland, California
[Vocations have been] one of my top spiritual priorities since coming to Oakland, finding good vocations from our diocese. I’ve been asking people to pray for this end, and I spend a lot of time promoting vocations myself.
We’ve been in the upswing in recent years, with more ordinations to the priesthood and diaconate, but we certainly could be better. We’d like to start a prayer campaign, asking people who are in the hospital or otherwise ill to offer their prayers and sufferings for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. They’ve done something similar in Arlington, Virginia and it’s been a big success. This is only one element, but it could be a huge element of a successful vocations program.
Fabian Bruskewitz, retired Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska
I inherited a diocese that was stable and wonderful. I was able to build on a strong foundation. My predecessor, Bishop Glennon Flavin, was an extraordinarily adroit promoter of vocations so I was able to construct on what was built before.
The first important thing is God’s grace and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary who is the patroness of the Diocese of Lincoln. We [have had] a good number of vocations, more than is adequate for the size of our diocese.
Robert Carlson, Archbishop of St. Louis
Catholic schools are important when it comes to vocations. Ninety-four percent of our priests went to Catholic grade schools, and 92 percent to Catholic high schools. And, most of our seminarians for St. Louis come from St. Louis.
Charles J. Chaput, Archdiocese of Philadelphia
We’ve added about 25 new seminarians from our own archdiocese each of the last two years, and we've also had increases from other sending dioceses. So we've had good, promising growth. The men we’re attracting are impressive. Our current vocations director and our rector are both doing a great job. But like the rest of the archdiocese, the seminary needed a rethink, a comprehensive structural and financial renewal. We’re working on that right now.
Paul Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City
I believe it is most effective to extend an invitation, particularly if it is by a priest to a young man. It also helps if it is encouraged in the home and family, which includes regularly praying for vocations. We want parents and teachers to regularly have conversations with young men and women about God’s plan for their lives. These should be ordinary conversations; otherwise, when the topic of vocations comes up, it seems like something arcane, unfamiliar or mysterious.
In our archdiocese, we have a wonderful youth camp which has our seminarians serving on the staff. It is a great way for young people to meet and become acquainted with seminarians.
James Conley, Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska
The secret of a successful vocations program, I believe, begins with prayer. Vocations come from God. We have two cloistered communities of religious women in our diocese, our Carmelite Sisters and our Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, whom we call “pink sisters” because of the color of their habits. They both pray for vocations constantly.
Also key to vocations is fidelity to Church teaching. That is one hallmark of the Diocese of Lincoln. For the past 40-plus years Lincoln has had stellar episcopal leadership, and is unapologetic in its embrace of the Faith. Having the security of knowing that the Diocese of Lincoln is 100 percent faithful to Church teaching on faith and morals is very appealing to many young men considering the priesthood.
We also have an active Newman Center at the University of Nebraska. About 100 of our 139 active priests have had some affiliation with the Newman Center, and it helped positively to influence their decision to enter the seminary. In fact, our vocations director is pastor of the University of Nebraska’s Newman Center and we run our vocations office from there.
Also, in 1999, we had a great blessing in our diocese when Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz opened St. Gregory the Great Seminary, a four-year Catholic college seminary, at a time when many such colleges were closing. It’s been a great blessing for us, and allows us to do our own formation of men discerning the priesthood. That is important because we live in a time when more and more men are coming from broken families. We are able to address a lot of “woundedness” early in their formation.
Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco
I find that young people who present themselves for vocations have a great love for God and the Church, and have a desire to serve. I’ve been impressed by the level of maturity of our seminarians.
Some who come to us have family issues to overcome, or suffer from a lack of catechesis. They have some catch up work to do. We need people who are seeking the truth, and have a love for learning.
Our challenge is that we need more. If we had triple the number of seminarians, we’d be in a good situation.
… [Stewardship] is tied to vocations. Successful stewardship is not just a process that takes a few years, but is multi-generational. It has to go way beyond my time in San Francisco. We are working with a firm that has been working for some years with leaders in the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas. Wichita has a program that started in the 1970s; they have been very successful, and are a model for the country.
Wichita is a diocese with people who are happy and proud to be Catholic. They have thousands of volunteers. They, for example, run a dining room that serves 2,000 meals to the poor each day, and it is staffed entirely by parishioners. Their Catholic schools do not charge tuition.
They have a diocese of 110,000 Catholics, and have 50 seminarians. This is a very high proportion, as compared to other places.
Thomas Daly, Bishop of Spokane, Washington
When I was first named vocations director in San Francisco, we had seven or eight seminarians for the archdiocese. Over the next nine years, we got it up to 21. Our focus was on “homegrown” vocations, rather than bringing in priests from outside the archdiocese.
It’s not so much about programs, but prayer. I asked people in our parishes to pray for vocations, and stressed the need for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I like to stress Eucharistic adoration; God will not give us the priests we need if we don’t put the Eucharist in the center of our lives.
We put the word out on Immaculate Heart Radio [which broadcasts in San Francisco], asking listeners to pray a decade of the rosary for vocations to the priesthood. We took a pilgrimage to Lourdes. It all begins and ends with prayer. I’m pleased to say that at Marin Catholic [a high school of the San Francisco Archdiocese] we have our fourth young man going into the seminary.
I also believe in the importance of a personal invitation. Once you get a solid core of younger guys in the seminary, they reach out to other young guys and invite them to come to the seminary …
We need to make vocations to the priesthood a priority. I spent 24 years of my priesthood serving in the suburbs of San Francisco. When parishes make vocations a priority, you can see that it really makes a difference.
Joseph Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky
We can have confidence that Christ is calling [young people to the priesthood and religious life], and help others to hear and respond to this call. When we survey our newly ordained priests, 90 percent say they entered the seminary because of a conversation they had with a senior priest. But when we survey our priests, only 30 percent report that they have invited a young man to consider the priesthood. If I were in sales, I’d say we have a great opportunity here.
I encourage pastors to identify those who may have a calling to the priesthood and to make an invitation. That is a way we can let Christ act through us.
The support of family is also important. Many priests and seminarians will tell you that the support of their own families often grew as they went through the seminary. That happened with me. My mom was happy I entered the seminary, but my dad was not. But, over time, he became my biggest supporter. I encourage families to see priesthood and religious life as a great gift, and support their members who are answering the call.
Robert Morlino, Bishop of Madison, Wisconsin
The key is prayer and God’s grace. We’ve also made it clear what the identity of the priest is, and in what direction the Church is headed. We also offer them joy in the community of seminarians and the ready availability of getting to know the bishop.
Thomas Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, Arizona
There has been great improvement in our seminaries in the past 10 to 20 years. We’ve enjoyed greater clarity of thought regarding the Church’s teaching on doctrine and morals. John Paul II offered many great documents in the 1990s, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the encyclicals Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), Fides et Ratio (“Faith and Reason”) and Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth”). These have been of great benefit explaining Catholic teaching and strengthening the Faith everywhere, especially in seminaries.
We’ve also had a better understanding of the role of psychology in the seminary. There was a time when there was too much emphasis given to psychology, and not enough to the pastoral experience of priests on faculties in evaluating men preparing for the priesthood.
While there certainly is a need for psychological testing of candidates to ensure that they are healthy mentally, at the same time this is only one aspect, the human aspect, of priestly formation. There are four pillars of priestly formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. Spiritually, we need a deep appreciation of the importance of a rich liturgical life and a personal devotional life. Intellectually, we’ve been aided by the teachings of Pope John Paul II and continued by Pope Benedict. And pastorally, we need to ensure that those preparing for the priesthood have a generous heart and feel called to serve and not be served.
Alexander Sample, Archbishop of Portland
When I speak to young men about the priesthood, I tell them that we’re called not to benefit ourselves but for our people. The priesthood is not about us, but serving Christ. We exist for the sake of the Church, to be of service.
We need to shrug off any worldly notion of the priesthood. I bristle when I hear priests talking about “my priesthood,” as if it’s something that belongs to us. There is only one priest, Jesus Christ, and we are His humble servants. It’s not about us obtaining some level of status in the Church, but about having a heart of service for God’s holy people. That’s my constant theme about the priesthood.
We live in a culture of entitlement. It affects us all, myself included. I tell our young men that they must fight against this idea. We must instead form them with a sense of sacrifice.
Edward Slattery, retired Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma
[To encourage vocations] we should start with prayer. That’s where everything starts. We don’t start by talking about ourselves or even examining our consciences. We start by prayer, on our knees. We come to the Lord and ask him to let us see ourselves as He sees us. He’s the only one who can. God knows each one of us perfectly, and if we’re seeking self-knowledge, we must go to Him.
Once we do that, we receive His help and a certain joy because we open our hearts to being honest. We allow ourselves to see and accept what is true about ourselves and about others in light of the Gospel. But without prayer, that’s can’t happen.
Once we become men and women of prayer, everything else will fall into place. But we have to put in the time. You have to schedule prayer. You have to make sure that you pray every day, and as often as you can. Become a man or woman of prayer. When we do this, we will begin to discover ourselves, perhaps for the first time.