After Years of Priests Shortages, Some Finding Ways to Encourage Men

DETROIT — On his road to the seminary, Denis Heames made some of the same stops that other men do — though not many pass through Hollywood.

This fall, Heames is in his second year of theological studies at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Raised in Arizona in a strong Catholic family with eight siblings, Heames received his first “call” to the priesthood at age 6 during the consecration at Mass. Like many others who become interested in the priesthood at a young age, he followed other pursuits as he became older.

He ended up in Hollywood to follow an acting career.

“I was doing okay for just getting started, but it was there that I hit the wall as to what I really believed,” Heames said. “The prevailing attitude in Hollywood was, ‘Whatever works for you.’ However, because of my upbringing, I wanted truth. That hunger led me back to the Catholic faith.”

Leaving Hollywood, Heames went to live at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario, to explore the question of God's relevance in his life and in society. Madonna House is a community of about 200 lay persons and priests, founded in 1947 by Catherine de Hueck Doherty. It was here, in an environment where the priesthood is honored, that he rediscovered the reality of both the Eucharist and the priesthood. His call was reawakened.

He entered Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Conn., a seminary for older men, in August, 2004, where he met Bishop Robert Carlson.

“I heard him, in a talk, give a courageous, challenging call to be men of Christ,” Heames recalled. “His articulation of the priesthood and his ability to be a spiritual father, led me to enter the seminary for his diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D.”

It also led him to follow Bishop Carlson when he became bishop of Saginaw, Mich.

It is this type of connection with a priest that is a huge factor in leading to vocations, according to Father Edward Burns, executive director of the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Our surveys indicate that 78% of the men being ordained to the priesthood in 2003 had received an invitation from a priest,” he said.

It is one of several ways that are emerging as successful strategies in dealing with a long-standing priest shortage.

Another way the priest plays an important part in vocations, Father Burns pointed out, referring to Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, is in placing the Eucharist at the center of his life and ministry, in his example of fervent pastoral charity, and in encouraging boys and young men to be involved in the liturgy.

Church Service

Again, according to surveys, Father Burns said that 65% of the priests ordained in 2003 had been extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist; 73% were altar boys; and 68% were lectors.

“Many of our future priests are right in front of us, and their service has demonstrated the desire to serve the Church,” he said.

Besides Heames, Bishop Carlson has been successful in helping many others to discern their calling. In the past decade as the bishop of Sioux Falls, Bishop Carlson ordained 28 men. One of the charges he received when he was appointed bishop of Saginaw in February was to increase vocations. He named himself as vocation director, and now has nine men entering seminary this fall, and two more in the winter semester.

One effective tool, according to Bishop Carlson, has been Operation Andrew, a program begun by the U.S. bishops’ conference in 1994 whereby priests (and others) invite men to dinner in order to get to know priests and hear their witness of the priestly life. He sometimes speaks at the dinners himself, as do seminarians.

The bishop asks his priests to talk about the priesthood in their homilies in order to promote a culture of vocations in the parish, and on occasion has seminarians tell their story after Mass. He wants parishes to have a bulletin board set up with pictures and short biographies of seminarians so that parishioners know who they are and can pray for them.

Bishop Carlson says his emphasis is not on recruitment, because then he might get in the way of God's work in the person's life. Rather, it is on helping men to discern their call.

“All of us need to stay out of the way of God,” he said. “And a priest has to be willing to be a spiritual father to the men, to walk with them and be a good listener in the discernment process.”

Bishop Carlson said he carries through on that by staying in touch with his seminarians and with the rector and faculty of the seminary.

Praying for Open Ears

Staying out of God's way is something Father George Rutler emphasizes as well. Father Rutler, a regular on Eternal Word Television Network, was cited by papal biographer George Weigel in a newspaper column earlier this year for his success in engendering priestly vocations. The Church of Our Saviour in New York had none before he became pastor four years ago, and now it has had several.

Father Rutler emphasized that “vocations come from God, not from what we do to make them happen.”

“God is vocal. We need to pray for the healing of the deafness of the men he is calling,” he said. “God doesn't have laryngitis. Sometimes the pride of fallen nature can block the hearing.”

In addition, the Church has to be faithful to the care of souls, he said.

“If the liturgy is done correctly, if there are times for daily confession, if Eucharistic adoration has a place — in other words, if the parish and the Church are being what they are meant to be, then vocations will follow,” Father Rutler said.

Our Saviour has a statue of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, before which parishioners can pray for vocations. Father Rutler also asks those who come to confession to pray for vocations.

He contends, however, that a big source of vocations in America is EWTN, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“By watching that station, so many people come into contact with, and are influenced by, a priest,” he said. “And when they see there how the Church is being contradicted by bad ideas, then good young men stand up.”

As Heames related, from his own experience, “When we in the Church value vocations as highly as we value careers in law, medicine or entertainment, then young men will choose them.”

Bob Horning is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.