Consider a young man kneeling devoutly in a quiet church. He strives to be chaste, pious, well catechized, strong, and healthy. It seems that all his life, he has desired to please God. But something is distressing him. The young man seems confused.
“Lord, what would you have me do?” he implores the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
Just then, an older lady approaches him. “Sorry to interrupt your prayer,” she hums, not at all sorry, “but I saw you praying here and was wondering…”
It is an anxious pause. The young man apprehensively grasps the worn cover of his Sermons of the Curé of Ars devotional. Wondering what? Is this the stirring message he has been awaiting? The answer to years of prayer?
“I was wondering…just seeing you here praying…if you’ve ever considered becoming a priest.”
The young man is taken aback. A priest? Why, of course! That’s it! How could he have missed it all these years? Finally, he realizes his heart’s deepest yearnings.
He gives a relieved smile and mutters a “thanks…we’ll see what happens.” The old lady beams as she walks away. Though her own children have all grown up and left the Church, she feels honored to have nurtured this new vocation.
* * *
It perhaps would be a straw man argument to say that the above situation is how many attempt to procure vocations in the modern Church — would be, had it not been inflicted upon me so frequently in my early twenties. Not that I was noticeably holy, but I was a young man, in a church, with a pulse, which ticks a lot of boxes. Nonetheless, it is baffling how an unknown older person would approach me while I prayed to suggest the priesthood, as if such a thought never, ever had occurred to me. While I don’t deny that God can work in mysterious ways, and sometimes we are called to plant the seed of an idea in someone, the actual cultivation of the seed is a whole other matter. It takes an inestimable amount of work, grace, common sense, and growth in manliness.
I am alluding to the failed attempts to assuage the priestly vocational shortage in the Catholic Church. The vocational crisis is ironic. Much effort is placed in appearing outwardly busy, financially active, and spiritually concerned, yet what is done is not only tone-deaf, but inimical to the stated intent.
I think of a visit to my local parish by the recently 0appointed vocations director of our diocese. The young priest (about my age, so we’ll just keep it at young) was taking the usual place of our regular priest in order to drum up support for vocations.
I wince still as I write “drum up support.”
He began Mass by walking up alone to the front of the church and, pulling out a concealed drum, beating it while singing, in such a way to make Steven Colbert proud, “The king of glory comes, the nation rejoices…” If Sunday were not a holy day of obligation, under pain of mortal sin, I would have beaten it, too, right out of the church building.
Much of the Mass was spent pressing the older people in the pews — that is, almost the entire congregation — to bring their grandchildren to Mass. Once at Mass, the plan was to unfold as such: demonstrate that modern priests are cool and love “ministry,” make Mass lively and active, instill a multitude of youth programs, tell the boys they would make great priests; and, perhaps most importantly, procure money for the bishop in the name of funding potential seminarians (inevitably to be imported from Vietnam).
It is the very same failed plan I heard when I was growing up, only this time it involves seeking out grandchildren instead of children. It is analogous to the misinterpreted “active participation” of the Novus Ordo Mass, applied to a busy-bodied attempt at producing vocations. Do this. Try that. Stay busy. Ultimately, the stratagem would make philosopher David Hume proud: beat the same old tired vocations drum, but hope for different results.
The results are never different, though. While the vocation plan sounds busy, active, and engaging, it predictably attests as out-of-sync, ignominious, and fruitless. How does one inspire a young boy with drab liturgical garb and cloying folk music that even a liberal-minded TV host cannot help but mock? How does one instill piety in a church where even to genuflect, much less pray silently, is shockingly scarce? How does a lad learn from his parents how to grow in the faith if his parents do not themselves have the faith? How does one acquire men for the priesthood if one shows them only a priesthood of effeminacy? How does one gain vocations by employing methods that naturally repel vocations?
The answer is, one doesn’t. But to change ways is to admit defeat, and that is something I will not hold my breath waiting to hear. Not in my diocese, nor many others.
So we are left to consider the older folks in the pew, the ones instructed to bring their grandkids to Mass, sway approvingly to the banal drumming, whisper “have you ever considered the priesthood?” to all young men, and financially support the tried-and-failed methods of post-conciliar evangelization. We consider them, and the many sensible things left unsaid:
Has it ever been suggested that they support the many traditional seminarians who urgently need financial aid for their training? Or has it ever been recommended they gift young families with beautiful catechisms, prayer books, and rosaries?
Has money been requested to buy resplendent liturgical vestments? Has it been suggested to add grandeur to their physical church buildings, and to include young people in these projects? Perhaps setting up, with the help of children, a pious votive candle stand, or a pleasing weekly rose for a statue of Our Lady?
Are they challenged to pray a rosary, even daily, for good vocations? Are Ember Days, the seasonal days of fasting and prayer intended to cultivate vocations, promoted?
Has it been taught that genuflecting before the tabernacle sets a good example to young people, and that chatting about the weather while standing some ten feet away from the Real Presence does not? What of the other necessary items to be promoted, such as male-only altar boys, firm teaching, ad orientem worship, and traditional music?
Have these honest queries, and many more of the kind, been placed before them? I fear not.
These sensible things, so habitually left unsaid, are what guide our young children, and especially boys, to a closeness with Jesus. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Mk. 10:14), Jesus admonishes. Oh, that we may stop hindering them with the hubbub and noise of modernism, and allow the life of Christ, visibly effective throughout the ages, stir their own lives.
I pray that some future day in a quiet church, my own boys, by then hopefully fervent young men long acquainted with Jesus the man, will pray earnestly to follow the path of Christ in whatever vocation He calls them. I also pray they never hear the words of a well intentioned older woman: “have you ever considered the priesthood?” For the young men who are shown Christ, the Word made man, the question need never be asked. The answer is always, “Of course I have. Thanks be to God.”
Nothing beats that.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of five. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.