RANDOM THOUGHTS ON VOCATIONS TO THE PRIESTHOOD OF JESUS CHRIST
SURE, AND HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT BEING A PRIEST?
In 1977 I was privileged to lead a pilgrimage of Legion of Mary members from Southeast United States to Dublin where we attended a workshop of the Legion. There I was privileged to meet Frank Duff, Founder of the Legion of Mary, who was to die just a few years later. Talking with Frank Duff I asked him the secret of his great success in winning so many converts to the Catholic Faith. He explained that all his adult life he has travelled around Europe on his bicycle meeting people and after talking with them and discovering that they were not Catholic he would always ask them, “Sure, and have you ever thought about becoming a Catholic?” He said that that question planted the seed of a conversion and the rest was up to the Holy Spirit.
Ever since then I have urged my priests to ask this question of EVERY boy and man, “Sure, and have you ever thought about being a priest?” Simply asking the question may plant the seed of a vocation to the priesthood and the rest will be up to the Holy Spirit.
WE NEED MORE VOCATIONS TO THE PRIESTHOOD
At some time or other, in the course of growing up,
a Catholic boy or young man will ask himself,
“Do I have a vocation to the priesthood?”
Some know the answer immediately and either dismiss the thought,
or they go to their pastor and reveal the call to be a priest, or they resolve to think about it some more, and ‘some more’ sometimes stretches out over a lifetime.
One thing is certain, it is God who calls a man to be a priest and, based on the anecdotal evidence, the ways in which he calls a man are infinite in their variety.
Pope Benedict XVI has proclaimed the next twelve months the “Year of the Priest”
starting last week on the Feast of Saint John Vianney, The Cure of Ars. There will be a lot of reflection on their vocation by men already ordained to the priesthood, and, hopefully there will be a lot of reflection on the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood by many boys and men, young and old.
Here are a few of the particulars about my own vocation to the priesthood.
I became an altar boy in the fourth grade, at age nine. Like all boys who served at the altar back in the days of what is now called The Extraordinary Form of the Mass, I had to learn the Latin responses to the prayers of the priest. The solemnity, the mystery, the beauty of that Rite created in me an appreciation that has lasted a lifetime.
In order to make sure that I did everything as perfectly as possible during an actual celebration of the Mass, I would play-act the celebration at home. Naturally, the idea of being a priest entered my mind, but it did not fully assert itself until 20 years later.
My service in the 8th Air Force in England and my 32 combat missions over Germany in World War II did not cause me to decide to become a priest, but that experience certainly contributed to my maturity. After the War I came back to Houston and finished my degree in Architecture and began to work as an Architect. It was at that time, 1950, that I began to experience something that many, if not most men, experience as they begin to discern a vocation to the priesthood: restlessness, loss of peace of mind, in Spanish – inquietud. I began to think of a vocation to the monastic life.
In 1951 I entered Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In 1959 I was ordained a Benedictine priest.
There is a lot of truth in the old axiom: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
I was now a monk-architect; my Archabbot was a builder. When I expressed a negative view of his building plans in Chapter, the community rejected his plans. At the time I was a Transitional Deacon scheduled to be ordained a priest the next year. He called me into his office the next day and told me he would not permit me to be ordained a priest. The two abbots who visited Saint Vincent Archabbey a few months later forced him to permit me to be ordained a priest, but he made my life intolerable. I asked to transfer to Holy Cross Abbey in Colorado, he refused to allow it.
When I asked him what he wanted me to do he said “become a secular (diocesan) priest.” In obedience to my Archabbot I applied to Bishop Coleman Francis Carroll (whom I had met when he made his episcopal ordination retreat at Saint Vincent) and he immediately accepted me.
On August 15, 1961, after having been dispensed from my Solemn Vows by the Holy See, I reported to the Chancery in Miami and began my new life as a parish priest.
The ministry of a parish priest had never appealed to me, but now I discovered the full dimensions of the priesthood and its spiritual richness as I administered all of the sacraments a priest is ordained to administer as well as engaging in the full complement of pastoral activities.
Ten years later, on December 6, 1971, Pope Paul VI made me the Auxiliary Bishop to Archbishop Carroll. I am confident that he did so at the request of Archbishop Carroll.
Yes, truly, God does write straight with crooked lines.
Those ten years were wonderful, but at times difficult years. Archbishop Carroll transferred me ten times to different parishes. For a man who went to the Benedictines partly because they take a fourth vow, the vow of stability, it was not easy ‘living out of a suitcase’ for ten years. It was obvious that the Archbishop was not only using me to solve some of his parish problems but was also testing me. Evidently I passed his test.
Every priest is ordained to serve God’s people. “Self-serving” should be a concept that never is connected with a priest of Jesus Christ. There should exist in every boy and man who thinks about the priesthood a spirit of service to others, a generosity of spirit, a willingness to suffer for the sake of others. Saint John Vianney is a good Patron of Priests because of the total giving of self which characterized his pastoral ministry. Only by the grace of God could he have spent hours on end, day after day, in the confessional hearing the confessions of, not only his own parishoners, but the people who came from all over France to go to confession to him.
I mentioned earlier that serving as an altar boy was an important factor in planting the seed of a vocation to the priesthood in me. I am convinced that there are two factors, among many, that have contributed to the great decrease in priestly vocations since 1968. That was the year when Pope Paul VI published his great encyclical, Humanae Vitae. It was the rebellion of so many priests following the publication of that Encyclical that had such a negative impact on young men who were discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Four years later, Pope Paul VI promulgated what is now known as the Ordinary Form of the Mass.
Gone was the need for altar boys to learn Latin, gone was much of the solemnity, the mystery and the beauty of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. Gone too, in to many places, were altar boys, replaced now by altar girls who could in no way contemplate a vocation to the priesthood.
I strongly favored giving girls and women a prominent role in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – but not at the altar. Ministry to the priest at the altar, I believe, should be restricted to boys.
Another factor contributing to the decrease in priestly vocations has been the practice in some dioceses of importing priests from non-English speaking countries whose culture and, in many cases whose view of pastoral ministry, differs so greatly from young American priests. God can call a boy or a man to the priesthood by speaking to him in a dream as was the case with Eli. But, more ususally, God calls a boy or a man to offer himself to God as a priest through an intermediary: another man.
That is the way it was with Jesus and most of his Apostles and disciples. “I have found the Master, come and see for yourself!” My vocation was certainly influenced by Father William Roach, my pastor in Texas City where I grew up. He was a young, dynamic priest.
He rushed to the docks of Texas City when the SS Grandcamp was burning.
He was on the dock ministering to injured firemen when the ship blew up killing him and 500 other people. His death was truly an heroic death, a death experienced while serving others.
In the Diocese of Corpus Christi there are 165 priests currently serving in the parishes. 80 have English as a second language: 40± Indian, 16 Spain-S. Amer, 12 European, 11 Asian-African. Many of these priest are wonderful priests, dedicated to serving the people entrusted to them in the parishes where they serve. But the reality is that they do not relate to young Americans in the same way that American priests do: they do not talk about the Dallas Cowboys, or the Houston Astros, they do not hunt or fish, they do not talk about the same TV programs or movies.
When I became the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in 1975, drawing on my experience as Auxiliary Bishop of Miami where Archbishop Carroll accepted priests from anywhere and everywhere, I established a policy of not accepting priests or seminarians from non-English speaking countries. The Diocese started with six seminarians and by the time I was transferred to Corpus Christi eight years later, the Diocese had almost thirty seminarians. It has continued up to the present to one of the highest ratios of seminarians to Catholic population in the nation. I made only two exceptions to my policy in Pennsacola-Tallahassee: I accepted a priest from Belgium and a priest from Poland. The priest from Belgium caused a scandal and I had to dismiss him from the Diocese; the priest from Poland proved to be an outstanding priest who has distinguished himself and was made a monsignor by my successor.
By contrast, the Diocese of Corpus Christ (which is ten times larger than Pensacola-Tallahassee) has only twelve seminarians AND NOT ONE OF THESE SEMINARIANS COMES FROM A PARISH THE PASTOR OF WHICH IS FROM A FOREIGN NON-ENGLISH SPEAKING COUNTRY.
Obviously is is a good thing that these foreign priests are willing to come to the United States and fill the vacuum left by departing American priests. But, we are paying a big
price for their priestly ministry.
I will have more RANDOM THOUGHTS as the Year of the Priest progresses!