Without Vocations, There Will Be No Eucharistic Revival

COMMENTARY: Without the priest, there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist, there is no Church.

Priests lie prostrate during their ordination by Pope Francis during Mass in St. Peter Basilica on the 56th World Day of Prayer for Vocations on May 12, 2019.
Priests lie prostrate during their ordination by Pope Francis during Mass in St. Peter Basilica on the 56th World Day of Prayer for Vocations on May 12, 2019. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

The center of the Eucharistic revival, the three-year initiative of the Church in the United States, is obviously and appropriately the Eucharistic Jesus — the root, center, source and summit of the Christian life. 

But as the Church celebrates on Aug. 4 the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Mary Vianney, it is a fitting time to focus on the indispensable importance of the priest in the Eucharistic life of the Church. Without the priest, there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist, there is no Church. 

For the Eucharistic revival to spur the renewal of the Church, there is a need to strengthen the Eucharistic dimension of the priests we have and to pray to the Harvest Master for many more priestly laborers in his vineyard. 

Most Catholics are aware that there is a crisis in priestly vocations, with painful consequences in the life of believers. Twenty percent of U.S. dioceses did not have a priestly ordination last year. Many dioceses are bracing for the retirement and death of priests ordained in the 1970s, who presently represent 50% of their clergy. In the United States, there are 3,500 parishes without a resident priest, and lack of sufficient clergy is causing many Churches to have to close. 

There are attempts at quick fixes in various places, like importing priests from religious orders or vocation-rich dioceses in Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, India or Poland. In some circles, rather than look to such temporary solutions, people are trying to exploit the dearth in order to push for the ordination of married men or even to propose the dogmatically impossible solution of the ordination of women. 

But many places are not yet committed in a practical way commensurate with the importance and urgency of the need for new priestly vocations. It’s not enough for a diocese to appoint a vocations director and then to expect him to be able to remedy the crisis single-handedly or with an assistant or small team. 

The reality is that many parishes — just like many Catholic schools and high schools — have not produced a single seminarian in decades and a visit from a vocations director will almost never be sufficient to change what seems to be, sadly, vocationally infertile soil.

Fewer than 20% percent of Catholic parishes nationwide have anything in the parish intentionally working to stimulate and normalize vocational awareness and response. Many parishes don’t do anything even during the occasions when the Church explicitly focuses on vocations, like the World Day of Prayer for Vocations (May 8), the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests (June 24), Priesthood Sunday (Sept. 25) or National Vocations Awareness Week (Nov. 6-12). Since 80% of seminarians come from the 20% of parishes with a vocation ministry or committee, there’s a reason why so many parishes seem to be sterile. 

A profound culture change is needed, in which vocational promotion is considered not the duty of a few specialists but the common responsibility of priests and parishioners, moms and dads, catechists and coaches, siblings and friends, Catholic school teachers, cooks and custodians, everyone. There’s a need for a long-term, whole-Church solution

But a culture change is not enough. There’s also a need for prayer and effective action as if the Church’s life depended on it — which, in fact it does. Where can priests, parishioners and parents turn for best practices? 

Vocation Ministry is a superb place to begin. It was started by Rhonda Gruenewald, a convert, wife, mom, former public school English teacher and debate coach who in 2011 was asked by a priest at St. Cecilia’s Parish in Houston to help revive the parish’s weak vocations efforts. She did not even know at the time what the terms “vocation” and “discernment” meant, yet nevertheless agreed to help. Gruenewald turned to the internet to try to find ideas, only to discover that while there were various sites with some prayers or activities, there was nothing close to comprehensive. So she endeavored to fill the gap. 

Over time, the fruits of her ideas spread throughout the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and she started to get requests to speak in other dioceses and to address groups like the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. Dioceses that have adopted her strategies have seen substantial progress, like Stockton, California (zero seminarians to nine), Grand Island, Nebraska (one to nine), Ogdensburg, New York (three to 18) and Peoria, Illinois (nine to 21), all in just three years. 

Gruenewald has uploaded her best practices to Vocation Ministry and has published them in two books, Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry (2015) and The Harvest: A Guide to Vocation Ministry in Education (2021), which are very easy-to-use, super-practical handbooks full of effective ideas to make vocational promotion the heart of every parish, family, parochial school and religious education program.

They should be mandatory reading not just for vocation directors but for priests, Catholic school principals, religious education directors, parents, parish vocation teams and all Catholics who love the Eucharist and want to see Christ’s loving self-gift remain accessible. 

Gruenewald has broken down the nuts and bolts of priestly vocational promotion to four main activities. 

The first is prayer, because priestly vocations are always a gift of the Harvest Master. She gives templates for prayer cards, intentions at Mass, bulletin blurbs, adoration for vocations and more. 

The second is education, since so many Catholics don’t really know much about vocational discernment, what vocations there are in the Church, and where they fit into the Christian’s fundamental vocation to sanctity. Her website, VocationMinistry.com, provides many educational resources and links to many others. 

The third is youth ministry, since 70% of priestly callings take place prior to a boy’s 18th birthday. Gruenewald gives materials to help young people think about vocations at Mass, Catholic schools, religious education classes, youth activities, altar serving, Vacation Bible Schools and more. 

The last is affirmation, in which those who have already said yes to a vocation — priests and seminarians — receive encouragement and support to persevere faithfully, with spiritual bouquets, cards, anniversary remembrances and other such means. 

Her resources focus not just on priestly vocations, but also on religious and marital vocations, which are obviously interrelated with priestly vocations. A vocations culture involves helping everyone in the Church to seek, discover and respond to what God is asking. 

Gruenewald is convinced that the lack of vocations in the Church today comes not because the Harvest Master has ceased to call, but because so many do not recognize the call and answer. 

That’s what she, through her work at Vocation Ministry, is trying to remedy. 

That’s what the Church, during this Eucharistic Revival, has an opportunity to revivify.