By REV. HENRY T. BARRON
As Msgr. Carter’s articles in this column the past few weeks have emphasized, we are experiencing in the Church a “vocations crisis.” Some people talk of a shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, others prefer to talk of a “vocations crisis.” The term, shortage can be quite relative.
We need to put into perspective our assumption that there is a shortage of vocations. Compared to much of the world, the Church in the United States has a higher ratio of priests relative to the number of Catholics. I vacation each summer at a wildlife reserve in the Northern Province of South Africa. The reserve is in the Diocese of Tzaneen. That diocese covers an area as large as the Diocese of Charleston and has almost as many Catholics; however, it has only 20 priests—and we think we have a shortage of vocations! Compared to many dioceses in the world we have an abundance of priests.
If we look at the ratio of numbers of priests to the numbers of Catholics throughout the history of the United States, it is difficult to claim that we are experiencing a shortage of vocations. The shortage of vocations we are experiencing is relative only to the recent past, when we experienced an abundance of vocations during the years between the late-1940s and mid-1960s. During that time we experienced a flourishing of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Because of this abundance of vocations in the recent past, we have become accustomed to having a lot of priests and religious available for ministry. If we compare the current ratio of priests to laity to that of any time except the years between the late-’40s and the mid-’60s, we are doing pretty well. This perspective clearly challenges our assumption that we have a shortage of vocations.
Also, we need to appreciate the movement in the Church since the Second Vatican Council to empower the laity to assume a more active role as collaborators in the ministry of the Church. This movement to empower the laity is not a reaction to any shortage of vocations, but rather the impulse of the Holy Spirit leading the Church to a deeper maturing of life and faith. The Synod of Charleston was to some extent an effort to renew our implementation of the Second Vatican Council in our local Church. As with the Second Vatican Council, the Synod of Charleston has had the effect of empowering the laity to take a more active role as collaborators in the ministry of the Church. All this may never have happened if we had maintained an abundance of priests and religious.
With the laity assuming a more active role in the ministry of the Church, they are able to perform many of the functions that had been co-opted by priests and religious when there was an abundance of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The challenge at the present moment is to adjust to the changes in roles. While it is difficult to deal with change, we should remain hopeful and optimistic. The Holy Spirit will guide us through this time of change and development and we will be a better Church in the long run.
The “shortage” of vocations is felt by all of us, and especially by priests. We can at times feel overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to cover all our parishes with dwindling numbers of priests. But, all of this could be a blessing in disguise. This could be an opportunity for priests to pull back from many of our merely functional roles and renew our priesthood by focusing our energy in different directions. Perhaps the Holy Spirit is leading us to take more time to become more educated and more prayerful and so become more effective spiritual leaders. For example, if much of the administrative duties in the parish could be assumed by lay persons, priests could spend more time studying and reflecting on the Scriptures, and so deepen their spiritual life and become more effective preachers. The developing role of the laity should turn out to be a blessing for both lay people and priests.
Rather than thinking in terms of a shortage of vocations, we might think instead in terms of a “vocations crisis.” Vocations are in crisis today because so few people today see their life in terms of a vocation. Many people fail to hear the call of God to serve him in a particular vocation. Many people have difficulty making the commitments required to embrace the vocation given to them by God. Certainly, we need a lot more priests and religious. The essential ministry of the priest cannot be filled by any number of lay people. The witness of religious life is a source of rich blessing for the Church and the world.
Next week I will share some thoughts about the present vocations crisis and highlight the principles guiding our diocesan plan to nurture and promote vocations.
Father Henry T. Barron is vicar of vocations for the Diocese of Charleston and pastor of Church of the Nativity on James Island.