success stories

Posted April 15, 2003

What Underlies the Priesthood Shortage?

By Father Eugene Hemrick

I was surprised to hear in a recent news report that not only is there a shortage of Catholic priests, but of rabbis and Anglican priests too.

The news report began with a Catholic priest ministering to three parishes. He represents the growing number of priests doing double duty.

The report next focused on a rabbi who mourned the declining number of rabbis and blamed materialism for the shortage.

Anglicans also complained that they have an acute shortage of priests despite all the changes in their church.

In my role as a researcher I have studied the priesthood shortage from a number of different angles over the past quarter-century. These studies have led me to conclude that a major reason for the shortage is that we live in a time of many paradoxes and fewer clear-cut ideas. This is true of the broader culture, and it is a phenomenon seen in the church as well.

Many reasons are proposed for the priesthood shortage: that hard-working priests must minister to multiple parishes; that parents of potential priesthood candidates are angry with the church; that we live in a materialistic age. And those are just some of explanations that are heard.

But what deters men from becoming priests is the image of a confused church.

One reason for this confusion is that the church is at a crossroads. Furthermore, it is in its infancy in fully understanding the new challenges it faces.

A lack of clarity in a variety of areas helps to create a blurry image of the church that keeps some young people from considering a vocation to the priesthood.

Take, for example, the changing role of the laity. On the one hand, lay ministry is promoted in the church, yet it is governed by rules that are not adapted to the lay state. Lay salary scales, for example, along with lay spirituality must be better adjusted to a layperson's state of life.

In some parishes, there is also the unsolved question of how lay ministers are envisioned. Are they collaborators who are working in communion with the clergy or are lay ministers under the tutelage of the clergy?

Another blurry area is related to Vatican Council II. Some Catholics are determined to move the council's vision forward, while others are equally determined to reverse it. Polarization and in-fighting over the council may well repel some prospective priesthood candidates by creating the image of a confused church community.

The role of the permanent diaconate is yet another area needing better definition. Some priests are enthused with its growth, while others see it conflicting with their role and, further, muddying the role of lay ministry.

The pastor's role also needs to be addressed. Is he like an orchestra leader, drawing out the best in people, or does he run his parish as a ``soloist''?

In the past, permanent deacons were unheard of, Vatican Council II hadn't taken place, pastors ruled supreme and an age of the laity was barely imagined.Changes such as these have been good, but as a number of recent messages by the pope and bishops indicate, clearer definition is needed in these areas.

The faster we can get our house in order, the more inviting it will be for young men who might consider the priesthood.