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The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis

by Rev. Michael P. Orsi, Ed.D

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria University, Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He is a priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.  He has written four books and many articles.  He has a PhD from Fordham University.

           A recent study of clergy trends shows that while Catholic clergy numbers are declining, clergy in other denominations are on the rise (Davidson, J.D., 2003). Of  late a sizable number of priests from various U.S. Dioceses, e.g., Milwaukee, New Ulm and Albany, have asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin a discussion on optional celibacy. While some see the admission of married men to the priesthood as a solution to the priest shortage others just hope that it will alleviate their loneliness. Recently, a 66-year-old Chicago priest, highly regarded by clergy and laity alike, married saying that the system no longer gave him the support he needed to remain emotionally healthy. He put it this way: “At a certain point I realized my parents were gone, my brothers and sisters were off in their own lives, and at the end of the day when I returned at night to a dark rectory, who did I have that belonged to me?” He said that if being married were an option he would still love to be a priest today (Marin, C., 2003).

It is perhaps this older gent’s comments that touch the heart of the problem of the vocation dearth and the present discontent among priests. The priesthood as we knew it prior to Vatican II has undergone a systemic breakdown. Although the traditional theology seems to have remained the same, certain structures that provided for its maintenance have crumbled. Abraham Maslow has posited – and research has corroborated his thesis – that after people’s primary physiological needs, such as food, water and shelter are met, secondary needs, such as the need for security, love and belongingness, emerge as necessary for human well-being (Simmons, J.A. et al. 1987). It is my contention that these next two levels of need are missing from the present structure of priestly life in the United States. I believe that this is the cause of the vocation crisis and the continuing exodus of clergy from the active ministry.         

The Church has always recognized the importance of marriage as an institution uniquely geared to provide the aforementioned human needs. The model of family had been virtually emulated for priesthood prior to Vatican II. Even the title “Father” lent itself to the family model. However, enamored with a naïve optimism regarding the modern world, the bishops after the Council decided to imitate the techniques of contemporary business for human resource management. In doing so they created structures whereby the bishops became CEOs and their priests employees. This  surreptitiously eroded the priest’s sense of security, belongingness and love, and eventually began to change his identity. Sociologists tell us that structures do shape reality. Theologians are also well aware that polity goes hand in hand with belief (Pelikan, J., 2003). The new structures began to undermine the traditional theology of the priesthood. They particularly affected the system that supported a celibate priesthood. Pious words and protestations of support for celibacy are not enough.

If bishops are serious about promoting vocations and desirous of maintaining a celibate clergy, the following changes should be made to certain policies affecting the lives of their priests.

1.  Get Rid Of The Priest Personnel Board

Any priest can attest to the widening gulf that exists between priests and bishops. Although many would like to attribute this to the recent pedophile scandals, which has caused bishops to act like Assistant District Attorneys instead of pastors, “fathers, brothers and friends” (The Bishop Servant of the Gospel, 2001, #9), the separation actually began when bishops placed a personnel board and personnel director between themselves and the priests. In my own diocese, a layman now holds the position.

The theology of Holy Orders demands an intimate relationship between a bishop and his priests. After all, the priest shares in his bishop’s priesthood. All the Vatican documents on the priesthood up to the most recent on the role of bishops reminds them that they are to be a father to their priests and responsible for their welfare. In an “Address to the Bishops Attending a Formation Course Sponsored by the Congregation For Bishops” (September 18, 2003), Pope John Paul II noted that “Bishops should treat priests with a special love; they should show concern for the spiritual, intellectual and material conditions. It is certainly a blessing for a diocese when every member of its presbyterate can rejoice to have found in the Bishop his best friend and father.” How many bishops act this way toward their priests? How many priests feel this way about their bishop?

When assignments are made, they are more often than not due to the deliberations of the board and are usually given to the bishop for his approval. The sense of closeness, concern, relationship – family – has been lost. The organization has made a decision that “it” thinks is best for the priest and the parish. The question is often asked by priests what is behind the move? Is this move prompted by my friends or enemies? Or am I just a moveable part? Does the bishop really care about me or know my situation? Am I just filling a slot or is there a genuine pastoral need for my talents? Does anyone care about my needs?

All psychological studies and sociological data indicate that people will take a challenge and overcome great adversity if they feel particularly needed, recognized and called upon by a respected authority to fulfill a task. Contact, concern and a sharing of a common vision with a genuine father figure will move people to do extraordinary things. Throughout the history of the Church, leadership exercised through personal relationships,  not human resources management, has been the key to promoting the Church’s mission.

A recent situation in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York emerged as a good example of the current breakdown between priests and their bishops. Bishop William Murphy has finally agreed, according to newspaper reports, to meet with the 400 priests of the diocese after a grassroots request from the priests for a meeting. In a long letter to the bishop signed by scores of priests they stated that they were not confident with the bishop’s leadership and were unhappy with the way he related to other priests. The letter cited a “sadness and sense of desperation” among the priests of Long Island. This is only one example of what is felt in many other dioceses throughout the country (Healy, P., 2003).

Why would one want to become a priest in this type of environment? What normal man would want to entrust his life to another man with whom he has little or no relationship? Since we are not usually ordaining ascetics or saints, wouldn’t marriage at least offer some security, a sense of belongingness and love vis à vis the impersonal control and loneliness created by an alienating bureaucrat and his bureaucracy?

2.  Abandon Terms For Pastors

It has been the long tradition of the Church that a pastor should hold that office for life, barring resignation or some grave problem. If there is a grave problem, canonical mechanisms are in place for a bishop to remove a priest. However, many American bishops have requested an indult from Rome, which is always granted, to establish terms of office for pastors. Usually these are renewable every six years. Renewal depends once again on the personnel board, or on the whim of the bishop. Oftentimes the renewal is one time only at the same parish. In the renewal process the priest is usually subjected to the evaluation of his parishioners regarding their pastor’s suitability.

If the priest is supposed to be the “pater familias,” the father of the parish family, – after all, doesn’t his title connote as much – is  it right to vote dad out of the family? It happens! Once again the family model has been sacrificed replacing a father with a manager. Furthermore, sometimes a good father has to do unpopular things for the welfare of his family. Under this scenario, who would dare to make the tough decisions knowing that he may be removed if he becomes unpopular?

It takes a secure man to do what needs to be done in any situation. Sometimes six years are necessary just to establish the respect and authority over a parish that a priest needs to be effective. Often simply getting used to a priest leads to love and acceptance, enabling people to overlook some of his weaknesses, failures and eccentricities. Knowing parish families, being with them during life’s good times and bad, and presiding over baptisms, weddings and funerals creates bonds that no managerial skills can ever attain. Even if the priest is a little kooky, I have heard it said, “Well he is our kook, we want to keep him.” Most people get used to their priests and love them for who they are and not for what some parish council survey – often a few people with gripes – say or what personnel board members think about them.

The greatest damage caused by terms of office is the instability it has caused in the life of a priest. Most priests are not missionaries. Their parish becomes their family. It provides the man with mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, and in time, if he stays long enough, he bonds with many spiritual children. A long-term relationship with a parish provides him with love and belongingness. The constant moving or fear of being moved has caused the priest to be more isolated and insecure than ever.

3.  Retirement For A Priest Is An Oxymoron.

If the priesthood were a job like any other, retirement would be a normal part of life. However, going back to the family model, does a good father ever retire from being a father? Because a priest is a spiritual father and one who should have strong attachment to his spiritual children, retirement is an oxymoron for a priest. Psychologically this concept has done terrible damage to both the priest and the parish. A pre-Vatican II priest never even entertained the thought of retiring. He presumed that he would die with his boots on. Barring serious illness he would remain at his parish carrying on his functions to whatever capacity possible until his death.

Over the past 40 years, however, the retirement of priests has become accepted as natural. So much so that priests now plan for it, look forward to it and even devise ways to move up their retirement date. How much can I love my family if I can’t wait to get away from them? How much does being a priest mean if the priestly life is deemed burdensome? How does the sacramental theology of “a priest forever” exhibit itself in this mixed-message business model? If I put my time in, I can collect my pension; and I must invest for retirement in my latter years. This current attitude is directly contrary to Pope John Paul’s “Address to the Bishops of the Philippines on Their Ad Limina Visit” when he stated, “Today’s clergy must be careful not to adopt the secular view of the priesthood as a profession,” a “career,” and a means of earning a living (2003). But in the present scenario, how can a priest not think this way?

The next logical question is who will a priest share his retired years with. Often his siblings are too old to have him and they have families of their own. His parish family is now gone since he is disengaged from the parish scene. And, for many, the retired priests’ home which some dioceses have established is not appealing. Might a nice lady friend fill a need? Why not? It’s normal and practical. Let me give you a real life example of how retirement is bad for the priest, for the parish and for vocations.

A number of years ago I was in a parish with an elderly priest. Monsignor Vincent was just turning 75 and had to submit his letter for retirement. It was something he dreaded. He told me, “I just can’t picture this.” It was not the model of priesthood he knew. When the time came for him to leave the parish, he couldn’t even pack his belongings he was so distraught. At his farewell Mass for the parish he began to cry, so did I, and so did the parishioners. Everyone kept asking, “Why can’t Monsignor stay? We’ll help him if he needs help!” I had a number of altar boys ranging from 10 to 22 years old. They loved Monsignor like a grandfather. They cried, too. A few of the boys told me that the bishop was mean. I really felt that I lost at least a few vocations that day. I’m sure in their minds they were thinking, “Is this what will happen to me if I become a priest?” Monsignor Vincent went to live in a distant rectory cut off from his parish family and friends. Later he wasn’t even welcome in the host rectory. After 50 years of priesthood there he was, alone and at the mercy of another pastor, who could himself be transferred or retire. And all this at 75 years old! Change is hard for anyone, but for old people it is especially traumatic. Does a man at this age deserve the stress and aggravation? Why would a normal person looking to the future opt for this kind of life? Would a family encourage a son to become a priest knowing this possible ending for their son? I doubt it!

4.  The Bishops’ Sex Abuse Policy.

The recent sexual abuse scandals in themselves are not enough to dissuade vocations. Human beings do fail, sin and sometimes make poor judgment calls. People do understand this. But how the bishops responded to their recalcitrant priests in this crisis is further indicative of how much they have departed from the family model of priesthood, and therefore more devastating for vocations. The Dallas protocols and the desire at that meeting of many bishops to quickly laicize as many problem priests as possible is symptomatic of the business model they have been working out of for years. When a worker is a problem, business gets rid of him. However, this flies in the face of everything we encourage Christian families to do. We rail against divorce. We proclaim for better or for worse. We tell parents to stick with their children even in tough times. We remind them of the Prodigal Son. But when one of the bishop’s sons is in trouble they want to cut him off, get rid of him quickly. Recently Bishop Wilton Gregory, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent a letter informing the accused priests of his diocese that they were not welcome at diocesan liturgies. The bishop wrote, “I have decided to exclude all priests on Administrative Leave from all future diocesan sponsored events. This includes our annual Convocation, Clergy Assembly Days, retreats, ordinations, Holy Week Ceremonies, and Jubilee Celebrations.” The bishop should be so firm with pro-choice “Catholic”  politicians who continue to act contrary to the faith and show no remorse for their actions or amendment to change!

No doubt we have some guilty priests and others who are unjustly accused but whatever the case, is it right that they are being shunned by a Church that is their life? I remember when I was ordained, the bishop gathered the priests in attendance and said to the ordinandi, “Behold your brothers.” He didn’t add, “until they make a mistake!” In this crisis we have stripped men of their priestly identity, their church family and in many cases their livelihood by giving them a pittance to live on. So much for my loving father the bishop! Why would a young man want to risk his whole life on a family like this?

The most damaging effect of these policies is the psychological effect they have had on one of our basic beliefs about the Sacrament of Orders, “Thou art a priest forever!” All those trained in theology know the fine points of the indelible character placed on the priest’s soul. But how is this translated in the practical mind to the average person when priests are being dismissed and having laicization forced on them? It makes priesthood look like a job that offers little security, no family belongingness or love. Even the theological and spiritual elements seem to have disappeared.

Having gone through these points, is it any wonder there is a paucity of vocations? Furthermore, might that story of the 66-year-old priest who married be percolating in the minds of other priests as a viable option? After all, on a practical level it makes sense. The next logical question must be then, Why would a priest want to encourage a young man to become a priest in this milieu? Could a priest really say to a young man, paraphrasing Lacordaire, “This is your life, O priest of God – It’s really great!”

Family breakdown has been identified by sociologists as the major cause of deviancy in the America. It is the root of illegitimacy, low birth rates and an increase in crime. Mutatis mutandis, might we not posit the same for the current dismantled model of family in the priesthood? The divorce of bishops from their priests, the separation of priests from a parish family, as well as many illegitimate notions about priesthood and priestly life, are all major causes in the vocation crisis. Unless bishops are willing to fix the faulty structures that I have outlined above, they will further discourage vocations, alienate those already ordained and lead to the further demise of the priesthood as we have known it. The bishops must realize that actions speak louder than words. 


“Address of John Paul II To The Bishops Attending A Formation Course Sponsored By   The Congregation For Bishops.” September 18, 2003. #4

“Address Of Pope john Paul II To The Bishop Of The Philippines On Their As Limina Visit” October 2003. N. 6

“The Bishop: Servant Of The Gospel of Jesus Christ For The Hope Of The World.” Synod of Bishops Extraordinary General Assembly. The Secretariat of  the School      of Bishops. 2001. #9

Davidson, J.D (2003). “Fewer and Fewer: Is the clergy shortage unique to the Catholic Church?” America. December 1, 2003. pp. 10-13

Healy, P. (NYT. 12-5-03). “Long Island Bishop Will Meet Priests To Address: Rift Over Scandal.” P. c14

Gregory, W. Letter to Priests of the Diocese Belleville, IL. September 3, 2003

Marin, C. (Chicago Tribune, 9-12-03). “The Priest Shortage; When the flock overwhelms the shepherds on the issue of marriage.” P. 25

Pelikan, J. (2003). “Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition.” CN: Yale University Press

Simons, J.A., Irwin, D.B., Drinnien, A. (1987). The Search for Understanding. NY: West Publishing Company

Administrative leave: the term is not found in the New Code of Canon Law (1983). It receives its force from c. 1722 which allows a bishop after having heard the promoter of justice to place whatever  restrictions he deems appropriate on an accused priest. Many canonists are uneasy with this provision and the way some bishops are applying it.


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