The future of the priesthood is hopeful in South Carolina

“Father, will there be a priest to celebrate my Funeral Mass?”

When an elderly woman posed that question to Father Jeffrey F. Kirby, he realized how deeply troubled many people are about the future of vocations in the U.S.

Years of news reports about declining vocations and an aging priest population have fueled the concern, he said, especially in places like South Carolina where the number of Catholics increases each year.

“Our diocese has about 200,000 Catholics throughout the state, which means about 75,000 Catholic families,” he said. “Of that number, a large number are older people, so that limits the pool as far as vocational promotion. Secondly, it indicates there is going to be more pastoral need in the future as far as visiting the sick and the need for the  sacraments.”

Despite these worries, there are some things to smile about on the vocations front.

This year, Deacon Mark Good will be ordained to the priesthood, and three new seminarians will begin studies in the fall.

“With one new priest and 13 seminarians, once we put that in context, we realize that things are looking really good right now,” Father Kirby said. “We want to focus on the good news about vocations in the diocese, but also don’t want to diminish our effort to generate vocations. The need is still great, and we want to promote activities and events that encourage young people to consider religious life.”

The vocations office recently unveiled a strategic plan focused around the words “accompany, encourage, and assess.” Accompany means to talk about vocations at every level, from elementary school through young adulthood. Encourage includes promoting vocations through social media, diocesan events and parish visits, and the help of other organizations such as Scouting and Serra Clubs. Finally, those discerning a vocation will be able to assess their calling through meetings with spiritual directors, seminary visits and programs such as residence in Charleston’s Drexel House.

The plan is already taking root at many levels, Father Kirby said. The vocations office has increased its presence through Facebook, Twitter and video feeds on its website. Young people can discern vocations at several retreats during the school year, and vocations clubs are forming at many schools and parishes.

St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville recently formed a new vocations club for young men, and the first club specifically for homeschoolers and public school students debuted at St. Joseph parish in Columbia. Young women’s clubs formed at Bishop England in Charleston and Cardinal Newman in Columbia.

A renewed focus has been placed on encouraging vocations in the Hispanic community.
Father Kirby also met with a student chaplain in the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Center at Columbia’s Fort Jackson to explore ways to nurture priestly vocations among soldiers, and he hopes to promote the idea with other branches of the military.

“There are all kinds of new avenues we haven’t explored, and the strategic plan has given a lot of definition and direction to our efforts,” Father Kirby said. “In answer to that woman’s question, I want to tell her yes, the church is working on vocations. There is hope