Fred Craddock passed away in 2015. He was professor of preaching at Candler School of Theology, one of 13 seminaries of the United Methodist Church. Now before you think I’ve gone totally of the rails here I would like to offer a quote of his that is relevant to Catholics as well. He is discussing seminarians and in this season of seminarians being ordained as priests or to the diaconate I believe it is quite relevant to Catholic seminarians. He states:
“Once in a while there is a seminarian who gives up. Not suddenly but rather slowly, zeal cools, faith weakens, appetite for Christian enterprise disappears, the wellspring dries up, the soul becomes parched and the eyes droop gloomy and listless. What happened? Did evil storm the seminarian’s citadel and take over? No. Did much study drive him into doubt? No. Did attractive alternatives to ministry turn his head? No. Nothing quite so dramatic. The seminarian simply made the fatal error of assuming that spending so much time talking about God was an adequate substitute for talking with God. He lost his doxology and spiritual death followed.”
What studies show
Let’s set the stage before I come back to why that statement is relative to us as Catholics. We are in a crisis. I see it in my own diocese, though it appears the pendulum is swinging the other way. We have seminarians waiting in the wings…only they are not become ordained quickly enough to replace the attrition from retiring priests. As a church we have been on the downward slide since the 1970’s.
A 2010 report shows that in 1965 the U.S. diocesan seminary system had 8,325 graduate-level seminarians. By 2010 that number had fallen to 3,357. That’s one third the amount of seminarians in a span of 35 years. Add to that this figure: more than 3,000 seminarians enroll annually, and around 430 to 470 achieve ordination. What we are left with are some pretty dismal numbers.
Some other statistics also show two alarming trends according to a 2013 study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). First, as I mentioned above, new ordinations won’t catch up to the thousands of retirements and deaths of ’60s-era priests: the total number continues to slide from 58,632 priests in 1965 to 39,600 in 2013. Secondly, the number of parishes without a resident priest is still growing—up from 3,251 in 2005 to 3,554 in 2013 when the study was released. This is also something I witnessed locally in our deanery. Thankfully, this has recently been able to be corrected. To make matters worse while ordinations are down and the number of priest diminished the number of Catholics has increased just as quickly.
There is hope and the recent numbers actually show a surge in enrollment to seminaries. Add to that an increase in seminarians who are making to their ordinations. Georgetown University shows that in 2014 there were 515 ordinations, the first time since 2003 that there were over 500.
What can be done?
So what are we the laity to do? First let’s return to Mr. Craddock’s quote. I tend to disagree with a number of those bullet points he brings up and I will explain below:
Did evil storm the seminarian’s citadel and take over? In a way I’d have to say yes. We are in a period of intense spiritual warfare (if you have any doubts on that statement I highly recommend you read Paul Thigpen’s excellent book Manual for Spiritual Warfare). In addition to drawing the faithful away from the Church what better way does the evil one have to attack the Church than to draw seminarians away and leave the Church without priests?
Did much study drive him into doubt? Possibly so. Seminarians face an intense curriculum of study. The path to the priesthood is certainly no cakewalk.
Did attractive alternatives to ministry turn his head? Possibly so as well. Just because a young man enters seminary does not mean he is immune to the same secular influences we the laity are subject to. The draw of the secular world is strong regardless of vocation.
I suggest to combat this we enter into a deep period of prayer for seminarians. We need to pray for these young men so that may remain steadfast in their mission and attain ordination so they may lead the flock of Christ. I encourage you to visit the Foundation of Prayer for Priests co-founded by Kathleen Beckman. It is an excellent resource who mission is “to advance the New Evangelization by catechizing and engaging the global Catholic family in a movement of prayer for the sanctification of priests and priestly vocations through the offering of Eucharistic adoration, intercessory prayer, sacrifices, and service.”
She told me in an interview for her book Praying for Priests: A Mission for the New Evangelization:
“The New Evangelization is the Holy Spirit’s answer to the spiritual state of the world today. Prayer is an essential activity of the New Evangelization. Prayer is the pathway to union with God. Prayer opens the door for the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and transform our hearts and souls. Prayer prepares us for mission. As Pope Francis expresses in Evangelii Gaudium, intercessory prayer has missionary power: “When evangelizers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others.” Through prayer we are transformed, and through intercessory prayer we obtain graces for our priests, our foremost partners in the New Evangelization.
It is clear that intercessory prayer for priests is at the very heart of the New Evangelization considering what Pope John Paul II wrote in Pastores Dabo Vobis, “The formation of future priests…is considered by the Church one of the most demanding and important tasks for the future of the evangelization of humanity.”
Let us join in the coming days, weeks and months ahead in the following prayer for vocations composed by Pope John Paul II.
Prayer of John Paul II for Vocations
Lord Jesus, as You once called the first disciples to make them fishers of men, let your sweet invitation continue to resound: Come follow Me!
Give young men and women the grace of responding quickly to your voice. Support our bishops, priests and consecrated people in their apostolic labor.
Grant perseverance to our seminarians and to all those who are carrying out the ideal of a life totally consecrated to your service.
Awaken in our community a missionary eagerness. Lord, send workers to your harvest and do not allow humanity to be lost for the lack of pastors, missionaries and people dedicated to the cause of the Gospel.
Mary, Mother of the Church, the model of every vocation, help us to say “yes” to the Lord who calls us to cooperate in the divine plan of salvation.