Looking through my files, I see that I must have been suffering delusions of grandeur shortly before we came out here to Oregon in 2008. Must have been, since I asked to be put on the agenda to speak at the next meeting of the parish council at a beautiful parish in the far western suburbs of Chicago. Before putting me on the agenda, they wanted to know: what was my proposal exactly? Resolved: That the parish council adopt as goal that we always have a full complement of priests to minister to the parish, a full rectory.
But this was disallowed — with an amused smile — on the grounds that it was unrealistic.
Nevertheless, indulging my fantasy life a little further, I drafted my remarks which I would be happy to make to any pastoral council that would hear me out.
We have been reading about the “vocations crisis” for years, and now it has arrived. Soon, wherever we are, we may be a priest-less parish, or a parish with one very overworked, frazzled, and unhealthy priest.
Now, then, what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it?
Actually, there is plenty we can do.
We need, first, to adopt a realistic attitude toward the entire situation, an attitude of biblical realism. It seems to me there are two kinds of realism. The one is based on facts, figures, statistics, studies, and trends — the old realism.
The other is based on the power and the love of God — the new realism. “Can God do all things?” asks the Baltimore Catechism. And in every Catholic grade school class where Sister asked that question in the fifties, back came dozens of children’s voices in sing-song, “Yes, God can do all things, for nothing is hard or impossible for Him.” It is still true.
A Bible under the inspiration of the old realism would read something like this: “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had likewise been invited to the celebration. At a certain point the wine ran out, and Jesus’ mother told him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said, ‘Don’t be naïve.'”
But this kind of “realism” is offensive to us Catholics, is it not? It is dreadful, deadly, hostile to our faith, cold, unloving, and false. One could go through the entirety of Scripture in this fashion, preventing every miracle with skepticism. In that Bible, Noah would have been realistic and not built the ark; Moses would have been realistic and not gone to Pharaoh; Jesus would have been realistic and stayed in the tomb — and we would still be in our sins.
In fact, His trusting Mother turned to the servants and told them, “Do whatever he tells you.” “Fill those jars with water,” Jesus ordered. When the head waiter tasted the water made wine, he said to the groom, “You have saved the choice wine until now.”
So let us put statistics and trends to one side for the moment, and re-orient ourselves in the new realism:
“Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:19).
“Therefore I say unto you, all things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive: and they shall come unto you” (Mt. 11:24).
“Because I go to the Father: and whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do: that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn. 14:13).
Do we believe this stuff, or don’t we?
Many of us have a long list of unanswered prayers that inclines us toward the old realism. “I asked to marry Betty Lou, but Betty Lou married someone else.” “I asked the Lord to heal my dad of cancer, but he died,” etc. Moreover, the old realism delivers consistent answers: “Will the surface of this lake support my weight?” No, every time. The old realism asks no faith of us, only that we allow nature to take its course. Plot the statistics, find the trend, make a decision.
The trend is toward fewer priests. Realistically, is it then the function of the parish council to wind the parish down in an orderly way, ultimately requesting that the last priest leaving the rectory turn off the lights? That is a realistic scenario in its way. Is that our “realism”? Our Catholic leadership?
Unnoticed in this survey is the fact that Jesus assumes we will be as enthused about spreading His kingdom as He is and that our most fervent prayers will be for that purpose. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest.” He has already told us that if we pray with faith, He will answer our prayers. Here He takes it a step farther and indicates what He would like us to pray for. This is a prayer He is eager to answer.
For all these reasons, it is not at all unrealistic for the parish council and the entire parish to take a stand in the Spirit, to adopt the resolution (primarily as an object of prayer). Resolved: “That this parish will always have a full complement of priests to minister to the spiritual needs of the parish.” In doing this, we are looking not to the bishop or to the personnel board of the diocese to answer our prayer, but to Jesus Christ, the Bishop of Bishops.
How will He do this? Somewhere I read in one of the saints that “how” is a Jewish word. In other words, it is the language of unbelief. How is not our problem. Nevertheless, one could conjure up a large number of scenarios in which our rectories fill with holy and fervent priests. Similar things have happened in the past.
St. Bernard, for example, “founded one hundred and sixty-three monasteries in different parts of Europe; at his death they numbered three hundred and forty-three” (Catholic Encyclopedia). No one could accuse him of being realistic in the least. Examples could be multiplied, and not only from the distant past. Between 1875 and 1900, Boniface Wimmer, OSB founded twenty-five Benedictine monasteries in the United States. Like all the miracles of Scripture, all such stories suffer from the defect of being “unrealistic.” This leaves St. Francis and the explosion of the Franciscan order out of the picture altogether. If we do not want such miracles, then we had better not pray for them or even think or speak of them.
However, if we ourselves adopted this new, biblical realism, there is quite a lot we could do in the way of fervent prayer. We could as a parish observe the Ember Days, three days set aside for prayer and fasting for priests at the beginning of every season. “O today that you would fast so as to make your prayer heard on high.” We could go on regular pilgrimages throughout the year, walking to parishes eight or ten miles away, saying the rosary on the way — which is another way of undergirding our prayer with sacrifice. We could fast from TV during Lent — which is a direct hit against one of the chief enemies of the Faith and vocations to the priesthood and religious life: the Culture of Distraction.
We could show God our gratitude for the priesthood by receiving the sacraments more frequently. If we aren’t going to receive the sacraments, why do we need priests? Everyone expects priests to push Confession and Mass. Coming from the Parish Council — fellow laymen — it might carry more weight.
And there is much, much more we can do as fervent Catholics and Biblical realists once we set out to procure a miracle from the Lord: a rectory full of priests from here to Eternity.