A letter to The Furrow in the current edition (February 2010) caught my attention recently. For international readers of this blog, The Furrow is a long established and highly regarded religious journal in Ireland with a wide readership and produced at St. Partick's College, Maynooth. The letter entitled 'What to do about vocations to the Priesthood' is written by Fr Chris Fox, a Mill Hill missionary priest. Fr. Fox was for a number of years the National Director for Vocations in Ireland (1972-1981).
The letter is interesting and wide-ranging and Fr Fox quotes the 'latest statistics' which show that due to the deaths of serving priests in Ireland over the last few years, only one in twenty is being replaced. He goes on to give a social analysis of trends in Ireland and Irish culture over the past number of decades ending up with a description of Ireland as 'part of post-modern Europe dominated by secular values' but suggests that this may cause a renewed hunger for spiritual meaning which is a ready framework in which the challenge of vocation to the priesthood can be presented.
Fr Chris goes on to make a number of suggestions. (1) Direct the 'message'of vocation to a more senior level. He makes the point that there are many men of an older age (40+) who can be attracted to priesthood as is evidenced by the number of such men in seminaries in the United States. (2) The question of married priests will have to be raised. The shortage of priests is threatening the eucharistic life of the church. (3) Celibacy. He says it is a great charism and a meaningful vocation but that there is now little cultural support for celibacy. (4) Promote the married diaconate but also encourage a more active role for the laity.
Fr Fox is to be thanked for the letter and the stimulation of a debate on the vocations question in Ireland. However, it is a pity that the suggestions put forward don't put any new ideas on the table. The question of directing the message of vocation to more mature (in age) individuals has some merit and it is clear that the average age of entrants to seminaries and religious houses of formation is on the increase. The other suggestions and ideas are tired and over used at this stage - as if married priests and relaxing the law on celibacy would somehow bring to an end the dearth of vocations. It would have been more helpful to look at the causes of the drop in vocations and try to remedy those instead. For example, why did dioceses and religious orders (in Ireland) almost completely neglect the promotion of vocations for almost two decades? Why was priestly formation not taken seriously for so long? Why was it that those (being formed) who were trying to live authentic holy and spiritual lives seen as 'conservative' and 'traditional'? Answers to these and similar questions might be more useful in pointing a way forward.