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I recently came across this article in The Baltimore Sun entitled “Catholics look to younger students to stem priest, nun declines.” What struck me was that the profiled fifth-graders “were so unfamiliar with a nun’s habit and veil” that they referred to a nun as “the lady in the blue dress.”
Unfortunately, the author eventually trots out the usual “mainstream” explanations for the shortage of priests and religious, such as the sex scandals, the male-only priesthood, and mandatory celibacy, without going deeper.
This shortcoming was adroitly exposed by Terry Mattingly on his blog:
“One of the major problems these days is that millions of Catholic parents are no longer sure if they want their sons and daughters to surrender their lives to the church.
“This is the factor that the Sun continues to miss in its coverage of stories linked to Catholic statistics–such as struggling parishes, closing schools and, yes, the declining number of priests. A key fact: Birth rates for most white American Catholics now resemble those found in liberal Protestant churches.
“I dug into this a few years ago in a pair of Scripps Howard columns that shipped with this title: ‘Fathers, mothers and Catholic sons.’ The key interview was with the progressive Catholic academic Father Donald B. Cozzens, a former seminary vicar in Ohio and author of the influential 2000 book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood.
“The bottom line: How many Catholic young people will even considering entering religious life if this step is actively opposed by their fathers and mothers?
“In the past, when large families were the norm, it was a matter of pride to have a son enter religious life. But what if most Catholic families contain only one son?
“’When it has become normal to have two children or less, you are not going to find many parents who are encouraging a son–especially an only son–to become a priest,’ said Cozzens. ‘They want him to get married, to have grandchildren and carry on the family name.
“’So there are fewer sons and there are more mothers who are asking hard questions.’
“Grandchildren or no grandchildren? . . .
“Once again, demographics is destiny. I would also note that, especially in Catholic pews, demographics are often shaped by doctrine.”
Read the entire article here.
Project Andrew, named for the apostle who invited his brother Simon (Peter) to come meet Jesus (see John 1:40-42), has become a popular vocation-related events for potential seminarians. While the format varies from diocese to diocese, the idea is to have young men “come and see” by spending an evening with the bishop, sharing a meal, discussion, and prayer.
The evenings encourage young men to actively seek out what God wants of them (maybe priesthood, maybe not), and then challenge them to be heroically generous in embracing and living out this vocation. In that sense, it’s about discernment, not recruitment.
Given that context, I wanted to share this article from my own archdiocesan newspaper regarding a Project Andrew event here in Kansas City. What I found to be particularly valuable was the addition of a parent component, as parents of the young men in discernment are invited to hear from parents of some current seminarians.
While the Church extols the great gift that vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life are to Catholic families, the fact is that many parents are opposed to this way of life for their children. There may be fears of “losing” their children or they may simply harbor misconceptions about the priesthood, consecrated life, or the Church in general–just the sort of things that dialogue and friendship with other parents could help resolve.
As Catechism, no. 2233 provides:
“Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry.”
This is a photo of Mrs. Elizabeth Anikuzhikattil, mother of 15 children, who died last week at the age of 94 in her home in southwestern India.
That alone is pretty special, but there’s even more: Of her 15 children, six became priests, and four became religious sisters! For more on this remarkable woman, including quotes from several of her children, check out this article, courtesy of Spirit Daily.
Check out Terry Mattingly’s post from last Thursday entitled “Fewer children? Then fewer nuns . . .” This post is a commentary on an earlier Religion News Service article on that topic, based on the CARA Report on the newly professed religious issued a couple months ago. He asserts that the shrinking of American families has contributed to parents’ unwillingness to have their children enter religious life.
Mattlingly points out that while there is a “season of demographic decline” among women’s religious communities, there are some religious communities are booming. He makes the connection that there must be a doctrinal component in all this and says that’s the Vatican’s take on it, too.
From my own experience as the father of a young religious sister, I can surely affirm it’s a doctrinal matter—both for those entering religious life as well as for the parents, whose faith and lifestyle have a huge influence on their children.
As I noted in my comment at the end of the post, what really struck me was the closing comment about promoting vocations in a “culture nervous about large families.” Large families have alway been considered a sign of hope and divine blessing. Ours is largely a “culture of death” lacking in supernatural hope. And so we’re nervous.
More simply put, if the family is without a living faith and doesn’t esteem religious life (or priesthood or even having more kids), then it’s not fertile soil for vocations. That’s why we need a “new evangelization.”
One of my favorite lines from Fr. John Hardon, the late, great Jesuit theologian whose cause for sainthood is working its way through the Church, is: “even a corpse can float downstream.”
Yet, as Saint Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is man fully alive!” If we are fully alive in Christ, then we have the vitality to swim against the current, to work against the pull of the flesh that wants to drag us downstream. And there is no neutrality here: if we do nothing but “go with the flow,” then we will be dragged along with those who have made a conscious decision in favor of the “flesh” as opposed to the lifegiving “spirit.”
Those who are faithfully answering the radical call to the consecrated life are the most “alive” people I’ve ever encountered. A few months ago my wife Maureen and I had the privilege of visiting with our daughter at the motherhouse of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. What struck me even more than the calls to chastity and obedience was the way they live the call to poverty.
Like the woman in the Gospel who was healed of her infirmity and was able to stand upright for the first time in many years, these beautiful young ladies are not “bent over” and worried about things here below. Rather, with Our Lord as their strength and constant companion, they see things from a more God-centered perspective. They are free. They appreciate and enjoy everything. They are not bored or thinking about what they’ve “given up” or don’t have. What an amazing paradox: By becoming poor, they have truly become rich!
I’m particularly drawn to Eucharistic Prayer III. One phrase from that prayer that has had rich meaning for me through the years is, “Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here . . .” as I’ve written frequently on the image of the Church as the “family of God” as well as on the “parish family.”
But at Mass the week Sr. Mary Kate entered the Dominicans, it was the next line that really struck me: “In mercy and love unite all your children wherever they may be.”
Even though Sr. Mary Kate is now a thousand miles away, we are still united in God’s mercy and love, particularly through our participation in the Eucharist and in the life of the Church in general (a “communion of saints” thing). This is another one of those teachings to which we give notional assent, but every now and then we have moments in which a truth of the faith penetrates us in a more real, experiential way.
It’s all right here in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2232-33):
“Family ties are important but not absolute. Just as the child grows to maturity and human and spiritual autonomy, so his unique vocation which comes from God asserts itself more clearly and forcefully. Parents should respect this call and encourage their children to follow it. They must be convinced that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus: ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me’ (Mt 10:37). . . .
“Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow Him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry.”
This brings me back to the call to poverty. Young religious need to incorporate a healthy spirit of detachment from worldly things, including even one’s family, if they are to be “worthy” disciples of Christ. This assuredly means swimming upstream, and I was so impressed with how well the young sisters seemed to be making this transition, despite the inherent difficulty.
It’s also a challenge for parents to have their son or daughter enter religious life, especially when they enter right out of high school. We had about as much advance warning as possible (Sr. Mary Kate told me when she was 5 that she wanted to be a nun), and it was still a shock to the system.
I think that letting go of a child who is entering religious life is an act of poverty on our part. We not only are creating “space” for our children to seek evangelical perfection, but also growing in our own feeble spirit of sacrifice and detachment. Not surprisingly, Maureen and I have become fast friends with a whole fraternity of families who are also going through the same process.
Please remember in your prayers for religious vocations those who have already responded and, like Sr. Mary Kate, are going through the initial stages of their formation. And while you’re at it, please pray for their families, too!
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of Religious Life, the bimonthly magazine of the Institute on Religious Life.