Beyond belief: The priest shortage - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Beyond belief: The priest shortage

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Posted: Saturday, June 9, 2007 12:21 pm | Updated: 7:51 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix now almost routinely puts me way up in the balcony when I cover special ticketed events at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, even when they know, in advance, I am coming.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix now almost routinely puts me way up in the balcony when I cover special ticketed events at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, even when they know, in advance, I am coming.

They did that for the June 2 ordination of six new priests and for the installation of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in December 2003. It can be a test for a grandfather’s ears.

When Bishop Thomas J. O’Brien led the diocese, I was routinely given a seat on the main floor, at events like when Mother Teresa spoke there in 1989 and the time O’Brien formally conferred monsignor titles on six veteran priests in 2002. You can debate whether reporters should have special seating, whether a close-up view of proceedings will mean better or more accurate coverage. Let’s just say a “staff mix-up” landed me in the nosebleed section this time.

I watch so much about the Catholic faith “from a distance” anyway.

Up in the rafters of that splendid building, albeit too small a “cathedral” now for such a populous diocese, I watched the majesty of the ancient rite of the final steps to seal men to the priesthood. No one beats Catholics for pomp and ceremony, rituals and symbolism, processes and procedures. What pageantry.

Here were nearly 1,300 people packed into a building for 2½ hours for the ordination rite — a diocese of a half-million registered Catholics getting just six new priests.

But whether it was one new priest or 100, the Catholics who gathered there celebrated it with fanfare, rhythm and glorious music.

The number of new priests doesn’t seem to matter. It conjured Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7) in which the owner of 100 sheep discovers that one has vanished. He goes in search, finds the sheep and carries it home in triumph. Said Jesus, “I tell you that, in the same way, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

It’s been decades since the diocese could count its ordination of new priests in double digits. We ran a bar graph in this section last week showing the year-by-year totals since 1989. There were a lot of ones, twos and threes per year. Five ordained in 1992 and 2000. Just one each in 1993, 1996 and 2005. They had no event in 2004 because it was a barren year.

It was a real point of pride that six were ordained this time, but the Rev. Don Kline, diocesan director of vocations, said just three seminarians are on track to be ordained in 2008. Where is the progress in vocations?

That trio is not enough to bolster the current ranks — 123 diocesan priests, 64 “extern priests” (incarnated in other dioceses but in ministry here) and 106 religious order priests. It adds up to 293 priests for a diocese of 92 parishes and 24 missions plus the chancery and various organizations and programs. Retirements and death, of course, are relentless at offsetting new ordinations. The average age is about 60. The Catholic News Service reports that 35 is the average age of the men in this spring’s ordination class nationally, and a third were born outside the U.S.

Bishop Olmsted drew great applause at the end of the Mass when he thanked all who “promote these vocations” and for “the great example of our priests for the way they inspire vocations and call forth young men and women who take a vow of religious life.” There was more sustained applause for the families who “committed their sons to be ordained priests.”

Still more clapping for the “six men who have said yes to God and are giving their lives now to the service to God’s people.”

As I looked around the balcony, I saw enormous joy and thanksgiving for the new priests. Even tears that the diocesan ranks now had six more priests, although one of them, the Rev. John Muir, is headed back to seminary for specialized study.

I couldn’t perish one thought: How could this huge gathering of Catholics not do better to get its young men into seminaries and alleviate the growing priest shortage?

I know the bishop and his staff are trying their hardest. I watched Bishop Olmsted stand outside the cathedral afterward and talk at great length to boys and young men. No doubt, the good bishop fancied them catching the call to vocations. He likely wished that the splendid, uplifting ceremony of that morning and the great deference given to the new priests somehow awakened something in those young males.

Who cannot salute Bishop Olmsted for how quickly he restored integrity to this diocese since his arrival four years ago after the dark years of clergy sexual abuse? “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and my successors?” Olmsted asked the new priests, using the Rite of Ordination, underscoring how important order is to the ministries of the church.

Olmsted’s nonstop travels around the diocese, especially to schools, always include words to young Catholics to live the true teachings of the church and to be open to discernment about possible work as a priest or a nun.

The vocations office of the diocese has created a compelling Web site to guide Catholics in considering religious life. It is aimed at clearing up myths, allaying fears and laying out the benefits and blessings.

Muir told the Catholic Sun what he dealt with in responding to God’s call. “So many of my friends and acquaintances see freedom simply as 'keeping your options open,’ ” he said. “Yet as a Catholic, I know real freedom is found only in the liberty to make a free gift of your whole life, in love, without holding anything back.” As a result, it’s “nothing short of heroic” to answer the call in the face of the “dichotomy between what the church teaches and what sociology holds,” he said.

In that article, Kline said the call to vocations in the church is being drowned out by the culture. “There’s so many voices, so many negative influences that are just drowning our good, honest discernment.” Wisely, Kline made this point: It’s critical that Catholics who are considering vocation and religious life recognize that “discernment” is a process and not a “simple, one-time 'yes.’ ”

He said that discernment starts in families. “I don’t think we have to tell our kids to become priests or religious. I think we have to show them what our faith is and what it has to offer. I think it sells itself.”

Two seats over in my cathedral balcony row was a nun I heard speak about vocations a couple of years ago at Seton Catholic High School in Chandler. Her remarks were part of an article I did in interviewing 10 students selected by staff. I asked them what it would take for them to pursue a career in religious life. Only one even considered it. All brought up a desire to marry and have a family, fulfilling another honored “calling” of the church.

For the many of us from other faiths, led by gifted — and married — clergy, we see a clear answer. Six last Saturday could someday be 66. Bishops could see new priests humbly lying facedown in obedience in all the aisles of their cathedrals — if a pope made a historic change to add the option of married clergy.

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