We have been pondering and talking about the priest shortage in the US since I was ordained in 1987. That’s 35 years. That’s a long time for anything, and it’s even longer not to have a solution. That may indicate the true, eternal nature of the Church; we can talk and talk for years without a resolution and go on talking for years more because, for us, what does time matter?
The unlikelihood of a resolution also doesn’t stop us from seeking for solutions. In my own diocese, we came up with a new push for priestly vocations which involved each parish with a vocations committee with the goal of 25 seminarians by 2025: 25 in 25 it’s called. This is 2023 and we currently have 1 seminarian. Things aren’t looking good.
We pray for a dramatic turnaround, and we don’t stop praying. I think that at this point, however, the Church in the US might, not exactly throw in the towel, rather admit that there is no solution in this society to the priest shortage.
The priesthood is a sacrament, so we have believed and even fought for for many centuries, and I thought I might take a look at how a renewed understanding of the sacrament of Holy Orders, though it may not, as has anything else, turn things around any time soon, may eventually turn the tide.
First, however, though I haven’t done any research, I normally don’t for an essay, but I hear there are vocations in more traditional dioceses, and in more traditional religious orders. For religious orders that means they wear habits and, while they may be involved in the amelioration of social ills, they don’t advocate from a left-wing advocacy position. They emphasize reverence in prayer and and simple, virtuous lives.
I also hear that Bishops on the same wavelength similarly have more vocations. So, a bandied solution is for all the bishops to unite in a concerted return to tradition; cassocks, Mass ad orientem, more Latin.
That might work, but I don’t think that it will happen. For one, bishops won’t find their way to a united voice turning the Church in the US decidedly toward the traditions of the 1950s. A bishop is more likely to request that his priests only say Mass versus populum rather than promote ad orientem because most of his older clergy only know versus populum and believe that it was mandated by Vatican II—it wasn’t.
The solution being used for the priest shortage is the importation of priests from other countries, where, evidently, there isn’t a priest shortage. We have always had priests come to us from other countries—Ireland, Italy, Germany—but the country of origin has changed—Nigeria, India, Vietnam. At least such is the case in my diocese. The reason that brings them to us isn’t to any longer to win souls for God, or to spread the Gospel, or to build the Church, but to maintain the Church, that is, to stave off a wholesale closure of her parishes.
An overwhelming need weighs on us and that is the need to maintain the Church as we have understood her for the past several centuries. I don’t know that American society was ever conscious of just how vital she was to them. She was an institution that contributed to our society’s stability for she shared and promoted her spiritual assumptions and aspirations. For her members she was a source of spiritual nourishment, and for that priests are necessary.
Today we see more or less clearly that that stability can no longer be maintained, so we talk of moving from maintenance to mission; we hear that a lot. It seems to me, however, that the mission in mind is fundamentally how to maintain the institutional structures of the Church.
There is an understanding of Holy Orders as a sacrament that provides another point of view on our mission in the world. Our mission in this world, to which priests are essential, is to provide the means for us to arrive in another world. The institutions, especially our parishes, exist as the locus of this mission.
The Eucharist is the center of the other sacraments; from it the other sacraments have their source and in it they have their end. The priesthood derives from the Eucharist and leads people to the Eucharist. A priest continues what our Lord Jesus did at the Last Supper and consummated on the Cross and he leads people into what the Eucharist is—the communion of saints in God forever in paradise, the next world.
In each of the sacraments God acts. This is a very old teaching: When a priest baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When a bishop confirms, it is the Holy Spirit who seals. When a priest proclaims the Gospel, it is Christ’s power, he himself, in the words. The words of consecration at Mass are not his, they are Christ’s, and it is his self-offering that becomes real on the altar by the invocation, the epiclesis, of the Holy Spirit.
We are emphasizing during these years of Eucharistic Revival the Real Presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. We should do so, but we should not look on his living Presence in a too static manner; something which we have a tendency to do in our society, for we are people who breathe and think in an atmosphere dominated by scientific materialism.
The oft quoted from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (10:16) are one of the texts we use as a biblical foundation for our belief in the Real Presence. I’ll transliterate the key word that St. Paul used: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not koinonia with the blood of Christ. The bread that we break, is it not koinonia with the body of Christ.
How should koinonia be translated? Sometimes it’s as communion,” other times as “participation,” and still others as “fellowship.” I prefer “participation,” but it’s pretty clear that Paul isn’t thinking in our modern scientific categories. We participate, or have communion, in the body and blood of our Christ and Lord; we are doing something and He is doing something to us. We are here and He is with us, and we are there, where He is.
There are two worlds that at present overlap. They are two different worlds, they are not the same. One, this one, is passing away, the other lasts forever, and is thus more real.
The basic presupposition is that there is another world besides this one. That has been a basic presupposition of religions since the dawn of fallen humanity, but the Christian view is different. Always the other world was much like this one, we, on the other hand, believe that the other world is not only better than this world, it is completely different. And I think that is where many have a problem with the Real Presence.
Not to believe that Christ Jesus is truly present in the sacrifice of the Mass is really to believe that this world is all that there is. They have been formed in that worldview. It has taken root in their souls. There cannot be the mission of going from this passing world to the real world because there is no other world, this is the real world.
The point of contact between these two overlapping worlds is Jesus Christ, and his body and blood is communion. The priest by sacrificing the prime goods of life—the marital union and children—allows him to be the one who embodies the reality of the real world. “I can live the celibate life,” his life says, “because there is another world where they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” His life states as an ontological fact that this world is not that there is, that there is another world, and the most human of all our activity is communion, and humanity fully alive happens fully in the communion of the next world.
There is to be a new heaven and a new earth, as St. Peter wrote, but new means not his heaven and not this earth. The truly real world has an impact on this world principally in the Eucharist and the vocation of the priest.
There is a story by the 20th century Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, Revelation. The main character, though she couldn’t be called a protagonist, has a vision of “vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.” Her own people are pulling up the rear of a strange procession. They are “accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
In that other world there is not even forgiveness since there is nothing to forgive. The participation in the body and blood of Christ that God bestows on us here is the one remaining feature of our life, body and soul, there.