Best Practices for Promoting Priestly Vocations, The Anchor, July 3, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
July 3, 2014

On June 16, there was a great article in The New York Times about identical twins being ordained priests in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, and about the twin farming towns that have been extraordinary fruitful seedbeds of priestly and religious vocations.

When Gary and Todd Koenigsknecht were ordained priests on June 14, they became the 21st and 22nd priests from the small farming village of Fowler, which boats a population of 1,224. That brought them into a tie with the neighboring village of Westphalia, eight miles away, which has a present population of 938.

Fowler and Westphalia have likewise produced an outstanding crop of many female religious vocations, with Fowler presently leading the holy competition 43 to 37.

Jesus instructed us to pray to the Harvest Master to send laborers for his harvest and the farming families of Fowler and Westphalia have certainly responded.

In the Koenigsknechts’ parish of Holy Trinity, there is a weekly holy hour for priestly and religious vocations, regular fundraisers to support those who are following such calls, vibrant parish youth programs, and high Mass attendance. The same can be said of Westphalia and St. Mary’s Parish and School, where the Times article said that more than 12 of the 43 sixth graders raised their hands when asked if they were considering life as a priest, brother or sister.

The vocational harvest in these two central Michigan villages brings to mind the legendary Italian town of Lu Monferrato, just outside of Turin. Beginning in 1881, the mothers of this village of 3,000 began a Tuesday Eucharistic holy hour asking the Lord to give one of their children a priestly or religious vocation. Over the next 50 years, 323 of their sons and daughters had responded, with 152 religious and diocesan priests and 171 religious sisters belonging to 41 different congregations.

In essays in their home parish bulletin, the Koenigsknecht twins described the impact of the vocational soil on their vocations.

Fr. Todd said that home was his first seminary, reminiscing that his “priestly formation began long before I entered seminary,” in the prayers said at home and in the general attitude of faith that that led to making and keeping daily commitments to God.

Fr. Gary said that two experiences really affected him. The first was seeing his uncle, a priest, stop everything to pray his breviary while helping them farm on his weekly day off. The second was a conversation with his parents when he entered adolescence when they asked him if he had ever thought about the priesthood and religious life, and told him that if God were calling, they’d have his full support. Both episodes, he said, gave him the courage to listen for a call and respond. Unknown to him at the time, his parents had had a similar conversation with Todd. The twins both heard God’s call, as has apparently their younger brother, Lee, who has just finished his first year in seminary.

The vocational fruitfulness of the tiny parishes of St. Mary’s in Westphalia and Holy Trinity in Fowler is something that should both inspire and challenge Catholics in the parishes, cities and towns of our diocese, most of which are considerably larger. Why are some parishes so fruitful while many other parishes haven’t produced a seminarian or novice in years?

Two recently published reports by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) give us a window into best practices in vocational promotion and a lot of hope with regard to vocational numbers.

One study (Nurturing Vocations to Religious Lie and Priesthood: The Impact of a Volunteer Service Year) showed that there are presently 350,000 single Catholic males 14 and older in the U.S. (3 percent of the overall male Catholic population) who say they’ve “very seriously” considered a vocation to the priesthood, yet only 1,000 (0.29 percent) enter seminary or novitiate each year.

In the other study (The Influence of College Experiences on Vocational Discernment to Priesthood and Religious Life), CARA sought to examine, by interviewing present seminarians and young clergy, what were the factors that led them to go from serious consideration to entering.

If that percentage of those considering to those entering increased just a little, CARA said, “there would be no discussions of a priest shortage.”

CARA described that among the most significant factors in helping men discern and say yes to priestly vocations were having priests as teachers in the classroom, receiving regular spiritual direction, experiencing a vibrant campus ministry, participating in Christian service opportunities, having supportive friends and roommates, going on retreats, having access to daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours and Bible studies.

For all these reasons, CARA concluded that strengthening Catholic colleges and universities is essential, since these parts of a “vocational culture” are more easily found on Catholic campuses, where only 7 percent of Catholics attend but from which 44 percent of priestly ordinations come. One of its strongest recommendations to promote vocations is for bishops to sacrifice talented priests to teach courses and be present in vibrant campus ministries.

In an age of priests being in short supply, however, one question is whether Dioceses will have the courage to sacrifice priests at all, not to mention some of their most talented ones, to this crucial vocational work in high schools, colleges and universities. To do so would generally mean that some smaller parishes might lose their priests to such ministry and consequently have to combine or close as a Diocese would be prioritizing the Diocese’s future health to a more placid present.

The CARA studies also described the importance of vocational encouragement. Their surveys showed that if a young man has three people encourage him toward the priesthood, he is five times more likely to consider a priestly vocation. The first time one is encouraged, he might laugh it off. The second time, he might think something strange is happening. The third time leads him to ask whether he really ought to consider it.

94 percent of seminarians and recently ordained clergy testify to how important this encouragement was from priests, family members, friends and roommates.

At the same time, the CARA studies revealed that, as important as this encouragement is, only five percent of unmarried Catholics say they have ever encouraged anyone to think about the priesthood and a quarter of priests have never encouraged anyone. That, CARA believes, is one of the reasons why 349 out of 350 young men “very seriously” considering the priesthood never end up entering the seminary.

The authors conclude that one of the main things that has to be done to promote priestly vocations is, therefore, is to “encourage the encouragers,” to create a culture in which all priests and faithful are regularly supporting those boys and young men they think might have priestly vocations to consider it.

That’s something that’s clearly happening in Fowler and Westphalia.

That’s something, we pray, that will happen more and more in Fall River and Westport, Fairhaven and Wareham, Falmouth and Wellfleet, and in the homes and farms, schools and colleges throughout our Diocese.