Part 2: The Problem (Continued), Its Nature and Scope

A Screenshot from the "Fishers of Men" video, Grassroots Films

A Screenshot from the "Fishers of Men" video, Grassroots Films

In the last post in this series I tried to sketch one major element of the current priest shortage crisis. Here’s my diagnosis in a nutshell: the current recruiting model emphasizes one’s vocation to spiritual and sacramental leadership. Insofar as pastoral care is mentioned, it’s in connection with the spiritual and human needs of one’s parish; serving the elderly and the homebound, creating dynamic ministries for the young and the disenchanted. And all this in the context of a life of heroic virtue and spiritual adventure. For a sense of what I’m talking about, just watch the USCCB’s official recruitment video, Fishers of Men:

 I watched this film over and over when I was thinking about entering the priesthood, and it had a huge impact. The priesthood depicted in that movie is the sort of thing I’d be willing to make huge practical sacrifices for.

But the reality doesn’t match this fantasy.

Priests are given minimal training in business, management, human resources, and educational leadership, and for good reason: they’re too busy getting philosophy and theology degrees, and training in liturgy, moral theology, and catechesis! But almost immediately after ordination, many of these priests become pastors of up to three or four parishes. Unlike in the sixties, when bishops had the luxury of setting up “apprenticeships” wherein a priest would serve as an assistant or associate pastor -- sometimes for 20 or 25 years -- today’s priests don’t even get much mentorship these days.

And this transition, from seminarian to priest-pastor without much on-the-ground training, it can take a toll. A bishop I recently spoke with said that this is a problem he and his fellow bishops are well aware of. “There’s a lot of talk about whether there’s a place in the priesthood for men who aren’t called to be pastors,” he told me. “I [my home diocese] we noticed this trend with a several men where they’d be an associate for two or three years and they’d be fine. But then you put them in the role of pastor and they just self-destruct.”

While it’s obviously not the only reason a man leaves, these bishops have reason to be worried about this phenomenon. According to an article published by Commonweal Magazine last year “The number of men being ordained each year is only about a third of the number needed to replace priests who are retiring, dying, or leaving. In fact, in the United States more priests die each year than are ordained.” In short, our recruitment rates aren’t great Statistics on retention are harder to find, but they don’t look good either. All this, while the number of American Catholics is growing substantially: 

What I’m suggesting here, is that one reason why it’s gotten hard for us to attract and retain talent in the Catholic priesthood is because we -- the Church -- is just not doing a good job of leveraging our human resources. Men who are encouraged to discover, discern, and develop a deep spiritual calling, and then handed the keys to a musty parish center and told not to let them shut the lights off must feel somewhat hoodwinked. Watching the Fishers of Men video you may get the sense that a priest’s biggest worry after ordination is whether and how he’ll intervene in catastrophe’s to save souls. The reality, as detailed in Notre Dame’s Study of U. S. Pastor’s Faith, Finances, and the Future, is much different. Pastor’s of parishes with Catholic schools, for instance,rank concerns of Catholic identity behind much more practical concerns: enrollment management, financial management, fundraising, and capital improvements. With so many pressing practical concerns, these priests will be lucky if they have three or four hours a week to devote directly to the spiritual and sacramental health of his local community.

Faced with such a crisis it seems like the hierarchy would be busy, decades into a comprehensive strategy for solving this crisis in management and human resources. But so far as I can tell, this just isn’t the case. Vocations directors that I’ve communicated with express a worrying reliance on a recruitment and retention strategy I would describe as the “The Holy Spirit will take care of it" approach.

Of course, the Holy Spirit will take care of it. But, as a good Catholic, I recognize that grace requires cooperation. We’re given choices, presented with challenges, and God allows us to exercise free will and discernment in how we address those challenges. So far, I haven’t encountered anyone who’s been struck -- as I have many times -- but the thought that maybe this crisis is part of the Holy Spirit’s plan. After all, we were guided by that Spirit fifty or sixty years back to reimagine the organization and authoritative structures of the Church. Some pretty radical experiments in parish management came out of Vatican II’s encouragement to reimagine the role of the laity, at least one of which I’ll be examining in more depth later in this series. Before we do that, however, we’re gonna need to make a pit stop. 

In my research I’ve continually come up against a question I didn’t anticipate: “If we reorganize church management, how will we deal with the explicit structures of authority set out in Canon Law?” Since I’m no Canon Lawyer (thanks be to God), I’ve called up some friends of mine to help me get clear on this question. I’ll tell you all in my next post.