The priesthood, then and now

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It is that time of the year. Dioceses and religious congregations are ordaining new priests.

Times have changed. Fifty years ago, and for generations before that, much more often than not, a teenager just graduated from a Catholic school, where only priests or nuns taught, applied to his diocese or a religious order for admission to studies for the priesthood.

For many, Catholic schools are no more.

Maybe he dated, but almost never had he been involved in a serious relationship with a female. He may have mowed grass or sacked groceries, but he never had had an occupation.

New priests today often pursued a career before studying for the priesthood. In my own Diocese of Nashville, the priests now include former physicians, lawyers, certified public accountants, engineers, building contractors and insurance executives. The world’s allurements were not enough.

Many of today’s seminarians and more recently ordained priests had close relationships. They thought, likely long and hard, about marriage.

A cultural impact

Vocations, realizing the numbers several decades ago, are down. Why? Never discount the serious decline in popular regard for religious faith, the overall curse of these times. Instead of adulation, today the culture surrounding seminarians, maybe even old friends, considers them crazy. Some studies suggest that too many Catholic parents who identify themselves as Catholics discourage their sons who consider the priesthood.

The culture is powerful.

Today’s candidates must face cultural conventions and life directly, skeptically, bluntly. Repeatedly, they are told in seminaries that by denying reality they waste their time. No room is left for fantasy or hazy expectations.

This is interesting. After World War II, when victory was won and the “boys came home,” vocations among American Catholics surged. Veterans by the thousands flooded seminaries and religious orders’ novitiates. They remembered witnessing firsthand the worst side of life, every day looking death in the eye. They realized that the only thing that mattered in life, the only genuine source of peace, was to be with God and to give their lives to God.

Genuine perception is as vital as ever. “Going to the seminary,” or considering religious vows, these days requires honesty, determination, independence and unshaken trust in God.

This is good for candidates personally and for the Church.

Today’s programs

Also, the good news is that today’s programs use every tool to develop candidates’ trust in God and clarity in seeing reality.

Acceptance into seminaries, and continuance, requires professional testaments of sound emotional and physical health. Academic programs must be in full accord with what an entire department in the Vatican mandates for seminary training, in terms of thoroughness and certainly orthodoxy. Faculty and leaders are carefully chosen.

Fifty years ago, numbers of priests left the priesthood to be married. Church authorities learned a lesson. Once, celibacy was never directly mentioned. Today, it is extensively and intensely covered. Students consider fully what life without intimacy and companionship means. They face facts. Professional psychology enabling deep, frank, personal reflection plays a vital role. The new approach worked. The number of priestly resignations because of celibacy plummeted.

Twenty-five years ago, proven reports of sexual abuse of youth by priests outraged Catholics and humiliated faithful priests. Church leaders learned. While psychiatry cannot predict, or cure, pedophilia, every effort is made now to address the issue in seminaries. The number of cases fell dramatically.

Admittedly, no program eliminates every bad apple. No human enterprise is perfect.

This has not changed. Anyone thinking about a vocation is curious about what works in others’ lives, what fulfills, rewards, uplifts, strengthens and makes sense. So, all Catholics have a duty, not only to themselves but also certainly to the curious, to be what they say that they are, followers of the Lord Jesus.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.