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Homilies | Friday, January 19, 2024

Lack of vocations points to crisis of faith in Western world

Archbishop Wenski's keynote talk at Serra USA Rally in Miami

Archbishop Thomas Wenski delivered this keynote address Jan. 19, 2024, at the Serra USA Rally, which brought Serra Club members from throughout the U.S. and Canada to Miami, Jan. 18-21.

There is much talk regarding the crisis of vocations to the priesthood. And here in the United States, we are rightly concerned given that our priests are aging, and ordinations continue to be admittedly too few. Here in the Archdiocese of Miami, we have a goodly number of priests serving as pastors who are over 70 years of age and several over 80. Thank God for them but who will step in their shoes? This question keeps bishops up at night, although here in the Archdiocese of Miami I take some holy pride in the fact that there are almost 60 young men studying to be priests for the service of this local Church. It will take about ten years from start to finish for them to become priests – so in 10 years we might have close to 60 priests (not all will persevere) but those 70- and 80-year-olds will be out to pasture by then.

But while the number of seminarians has grown here in Miami, we cannot deny that there is a crisis. Why? Young Americans today, many of whom have suffered the consequences of the divorce of their parents, fear making any long-term commitments. This fear of assuming risks in the face of an apparently uncertain future also accounts for the contemporary crisis in marriage today. In the West (North America and Western Europe), young people caught in a culture of instant gratification and fleeting interests are in no rush to marry, much less enter a seminary or convent. Today in the U.S. there are more adults not married or no longer married than there are married adults. So, we’re not lacking seminarians because young people are rushing to get married.

But don’t let these statistics scare or discourage you. On a global level, the total number of seminarians is higher today than it was in 1978 when John Paul II became pope. During the almost 27 years of his pontificate, he inspired many young people to embrace a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life. Many young priests who are enthusiastic about being priests and serve with integrity describe themselves as JP2 priests. Many of these priests and religious sisters will tell you that they discovered their vocation at a World Youth Day which was the creation of Pope St. John Paul II.

St. John Paul II said in Novo Milenio Ineunte, “...young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ...If Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the cross.” (NMI #9)

A superficial knowledge of Christ — the fruit of an inadequate or faulty religious formation — is a formidable obstacle to fostering vocations. Whatever can foster in children and youth the authentic discovery of the person of Jesus and of the vital relationship with him will be beneficial to awakening vocations.

World Youth Days — on a global level — have done just that when Christ is presented “as he really is.” If we do that then young people will be able to experience Jesus “as an answer that is convincing.”

That there are many vocations in Poland, or in Africa or in India is a hopeful sign. What would we do without those foreign-born priests who have come here to America to serve us? But it is also a challenge to us who live in what is called the West, where the numbers of vocations have yet to significantly grow. And I use the word grow deliberately, for vocations must be cultivated if the numbers are to grow. And that is a task for the entire Catholic community.

Once in a while, I’ll get a letter from some parishioner complaining about their priest’s accent. I usually write back urging patience but sometimes I’ve been tempted to write — Ma’am, think of this priest’s parents who allowed him to go to the seminary, to go off to a far distant land, far away from them, just to serve you. And why? Because when your kids were young, and if they mentioned that they were thinking about the priesthood or religious life, you said: NO WAY.

Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, the priest shortage is not the result of celibacy but of a crisis of faith and the closing of the window of man’s mind to infinity or transcendence. The desire to become a priest is nourished essentially from intimacy with the Lord, in a really personal relationship, which is expressed above all by the desire to be with him. Priests should not only invite young men to consider a vocation to the priesthood but also attract them by their priestly integrity and joy. Parents also should be willing to encourage their children if and when they wish to discern a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life. At the same time, teachers, and just simple Catholics, when they see a particularly promising youth, should also encourage him or her to think about dedicating their lives to God’s service.

Young people, whether in our parishes, campus ministries, schools, or religious education programs, can and will respond to God who does not fail to call — for he is not outdone in generosity. They will be able to overcome “their possible ambiguities” with the confidence that Christian hope inspires — if all of us members of Christ’s faithful continue to support the ordained ministry of our priests and if all of us support the young by introducing them to a personal and real relationship with Christ, a relationship that is nurtured with a solid catechesis and sacramental life.

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