YEAR BY YEAR the figures in the Living Church Annual give the tragic story of a Church, the very existence of which depends upon its clergy, but which, more and more as time passes, is failing to give of its sons for this work. We are all aware, in a general sort of way, of the exceedingly slight increase in the ranks of the ministry. We deplore the lack of candidates, we appoint commissions on Recruiting for the Ministry, but one wonders whether we really understand the full tragedy of the situation and whether it has ever occurred to us that we might do something to help remedy it.
The figures in the Living Church Annual for the year 1927 are pathetic. During that year 121 of our clergy departed this life, sixteen were deposed from or deprived of the exercise of their ministry, and sixteen were transferred to foreign dioceses. In all, 153 men were lost to the ministry of the Church during the year of 1927. During that same period of time, 161 men were ordained to the priesthood and 192 to the diaconate. The apparent gain to the Church for that year, however, was only the number of those men who were ordained to the diaconate, or 192 men; the net gain was undoubtedly much smaller, for in all probability some of those who were ordained to the diaconate were still in the process of completing their seminary courses and were not available for the active work of the Church. Less than 192 men to take the places of 153 men who were lost. More pathetic still, these same figures for 1927 show an increase in ordinations to the diaconate of but one, and a decrease in ordinations to the priesthood of twenty-one when compared to the numbers of the preceding year. One cannot but wonder what the figures for this year will show when they become available. Truly, the laborers are few.
What, then, shall we say? The priesthood of the Catholic Church, upon which the very existence of the Church depends, is not hereditary. It is not attached to any one tribe or family as was the case in ancient times among the children of Israel. We have no priestly caste which perpetuates itself. It does not follow, however, that every man may embrace the priesthood and assume that royal dignity with which the minister of God is vested. A special call to the sacred ministry is required; a divine vocation is necessary. To embrace the priesthood without the consciousness of such a divine call would be hazardous and rash. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that "no man taketh this honor unto himself, but he that is called of God as was Aaron" (Hebrews 5:4).
At all times and in all places God has raised up priests to Himself. The sense of vocation comes to one man in the form of a smashing manifestation of God's will, as it came to Saint Paul on the Damascus road; to another it comes to be known by certain internal inspirations by which he is brought to think highly of the ministry, to desire it for the glory of God and the good of his fellow men. To some the call comes loud and unmistakably clear; to others it comes like a whisper borne on the evening breeze. All about us, as in the days of old, our Lord walks and by the touch of His hand, the tone of His voice, or the glance of His eye, bids those whom He has chosen, "Follow Me." All about us and into our keeping are given vocations to the sacred ministry which we are to foster, to nourish, and to bring to fruition. God alone knows the number of unsuspected vocations in your parish and in mine of which you and I are totally ignorant, and of which the recipients of God's call themselves may be only vaguely aware. And may it not be true that often because we have failed to provide the kind of soil necessary for their growth, or because we are blind, the sense of vocation, failing to find the nourishment that it needs, is finally lost and there remains only a baffling sense of disappointment and a consciousness that somehow life is incomplete and inadequate?
But how shall we recognize a vocation? There are certain marks which seem to point to a sacerdotal vocation. The first of these is a strong desire or inclination to enter the priesthood. We may say with Saint Alphonsus that there are further required: purity of intention, knowledge and talent, and positive goodness of character. By purity of intention we mean that the aspirant must not be impelled by ambition, by personal interest, or by worldly motives; his only aim should be the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Knowledge and talent refer to the intellectual equipment which enables a priest to act as a teacher of divine truth. Positive goodness means that he who would ascend the altar must not only be free from sin, but must have already begun to acquire habits of virtue. These marks of a vocation may well be borne in mind, as they help us to recognize the beginnings of vocation in those around us, as well as providing for us a standard by which we may judge whether it be a real vocation or not.
The soil on which vocations to the priesthood grow is the Christian home, and, in connection with it, the parish church. Only those boys who, from the very first days of their life, are surrounded by an atmosphere of faith and goodness, who see before them constantly the example of godly, devoted parents, may be expected to aspire to that state in which they may devote themselves utterly to the service of Him whom they have learned to love. Catholics must realize this and see to it that in the home is provided a practical demonstration of the winsomeness and loveliness of that faith which they profess with their lips. The laity must recognize that upon them, largely, devolves the responsibility of providing the necessary number of candidates for Holy Orders; the clergy must recognize that upon them rests the responsibility of so instructing the parents that they will encourage their children to think seriously about God's claim upon them. If the possibility of a vocation to the sacred ministry were held up before every lad in every Church home, and if he were encouraged to respond to such a call, if and when it came, the number of vocations which might be saved cannot be estimated. The home is naturally the place where vocations can best be encouraged and fostered. So it is to the home, to the parents, that the Church must go when she attempts to seek out those whom God has chosen and called to His service. She must lay before her people, in no uncertain fashion, their responsibility and exhort them to accept it. They must be made to understand, those parents in your parish and mine, that the very existence of the Church depends upon their response, and that, before God, they have the duty and high privilege of offering their sons for the service of the Church.
As parents have their responsibility, so has the parish its responsibility. Is the parish, your parish and mine, the sort of parish which would inspire the normal boy to seek the great adventure of serving God in His Church? Is it furnishing the kind of soil in which the sense of vocation will thrive? Will that boy see in the life of my parish something of the romance, something of the glorious adventure, yes, something of the holy warfare to which his Lord calls him? He recognizes all that in the incarnate life of the Son of God; does he find it in His Mystical Body, the Church? Or will he see in my parish a dull, uninteresting, uninspiring, although altogether respectable and complacent, round of services and activities which could never call forth from his heart any fervent aspiration to devote his life to such a cause? Is the call of Christ being sounded within the parish gates? Or is the possibility of such a life, devoted to our Lord in His Church, rarely mentioned? Are the Ember seasons used regularly not only as seasons of prayer for those who are about to be ordained, but also as seasons in which we may present the claims of the priesthood upon the lives of our boys and young men? Do we preach more than an occasional sermon on the sacred ministry? Do we give an intention at Mass, with any degree of regularity, to the increase of the ministry? Do we, both in our public and in our private devotions, "pray the Lord of the harvest that He will send forth laborers into the harvest"?
Surely all these things are a part of our duty as priests. Very early we find Saint Clement exhorting his clergy in this fashion: "That 'the harvest is great but the workmen are few,' this is well-known and manifest. Let us therefore 'ask of the Lord of the harvest' that He would send forth workmen into the harvest; such workmen as 'shall skillfully dispense the word of truth'; workmen 'who shall not be ashamed'; faithful workmen; workmen who shall be 'the light of the world'; workmen who 'work not for the food that perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life'; workmen who shall be such as the apostles; workmen who imitate the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost; who are concerned for the salvation of men" (First Epistle of Clement, Ch. XIII).
Such was Saint Clement's exhortation to the priests of his day; do we not need to hear it in our day? For if we so fail to labor and pray, in season and out of season, not only do we defeat our own cause, but we cooperate with the powers of evil in their effort to delay the coming of the Kingdom for which we hope and pray.
And in speaking of the priesthood to our young men, let us be careful to picture it as it really is, lest in our zeal we give them false impressions. For the sake of the faith we must be honest. We must admit candidly that there are hardships to be endured and sacrifices to be made. The priesthood offers no soft berth for any man if he would truly serve his Lord, and no honest man would seek the priesthood with any other purpose in mind. Unfortunately, the Church numbers among her clergy today some few men, limited to no one party, who seem to be more or less strangers to those most Catholic doctrines of sacrifice and suffering—men without missionary zeal, without enthusiasm for the common task of the Church; men who refuse to undertake any work which appears to be the least bit difficult or where the stipend may not seem adequate to keep them in the fashion to which they have been accustomed or to which they aspire. The Church still has frontiers, and for the Catholic those frontiers are everywhere. Let us remember that, above all, frontiersmen must be men of courage, of zeal, and of dogged perseverance. Let us stress, and not conceal, the fact that the priesthood demands men who are willing to endure, to sacrifice, and, if need be, to suffer for the cause of Christ and the faith.
As Father Figgis reminds us, we must not be afraid to appeal to the heroic. "It is idle," he says, "and worse than idle to speak as though Christ's livery were worn with ease, that the chivalry of heaven involved no sacrifice and pain. I think there is less error in exaggerating than in minimizing the Cross; otherwise, as soon as men learn its weight, they will thrust it from them. . . . Never deny that it is to battle you are calling them, to a scene splendid with all the agonies of effort, to a crown bright with tears and sparkling with thorns" (FIGGIS: Antichrist and Other Sermons).
Of course, every Catholic knows that we must not attempt to persuade those who have no sense of vocation to enter the sacred ministry. Presenting the claim of the Church upon her sons and encouraging those sons to listen for the voice of God is one thing, and this we are bound to do. Making an a priori judgment to the effect that such and such a boy, because of certain attractive qualities which he may possess, should devote himself to the priesthood and then bending every effort to persuade him to offer himself, whether he is particularly conscious of a vocation or not, is both harmful and wrong. I strongly distrust many of the so-called "Life Work Conferences" which are held, for I am afraid that not always do their leaders content themselves with presenting the work of the ministry, but frequently seek to bring undue pressure to bear upon individuals who have little or no sense of vocation. We dare not add to the number of those unfortunate priests who have no vocation. It has rightly been said that vocation is the main wheel of our entire life. As in a clock, if the main wheel be broken, the entire clock is injured, so if a person errs in his vocation his whole life will be full of errors.
May we not say, however, and with a great degree of assurance, that out of a Church numbering almost two million baptized souls, God sends forth His call to more than one hundred or two hundred men each year to do the work of the ministry? Such a number will fail to keep alive the work which has already been begun. There are literally thousands of parishes and missions, over this land of ours, where souls have been joined unto our Lord in Holy Baptism where the sacraments are no longer available, or at best, only at long and irregular intervals. In countless towns and villages, the Church loses to Protestantism each year great numbers of people who have been utterly neglected and who, because they desire to worship and to serve God in some way, finally drift into the various denominations. Many others drift away from all forms of organized Christianity. From diocese after diocese and from bishop after bishop comes the call for men, for men of ready wills and clear convictions, who will go out and preserve to the Church that which she has already won. And what of the advance work? Christ's Kingdom on earth cannot stand still; it must go triumphantly forward, ever increasing its activity and broadening the field of its labors. And forward it cannot go without leaders. Somewhere among those two million souls there are vocations, and it is your part and my part to seek them out, to encourage them and, under the providence of God, to bring them to maturity.
We have mentioned some ways in which it is possible for the parish priest to cooperate with God in bringing men into the ranks of the sacred ministry. There are no new or novel ways. I have no panacea to offer which will solve all our difficulties and cure all the ills of our present system. Nor do I think such new or novel methods are needed; if the parish priest will pray and work for vocations in his own parish, God will cooperate with him and vocations will be granted. We have not yet, however, spoken of the most powerful instrument which the priest can wield to win men who have vocations, to the acceptance of them.
You will recall that when our blessed Lord was sitting with His disciples at the Last Supper, He lifted up His voice and prayed, and in the midst of His prayer there came those wondrous words: "For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they also may be sanctified" (Saint John 17: 19).
The life which I lead as priest of God is bound to affect those who are wondering about the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood. We have seen that one of the first marks of a vocation is a strong inclination or desire to serve God in His Church. Is my life the kind of life which will inspire in others a desire to share in the priesthood in which I share? Do they see in me the marks of the Lord Jesus? Do they take knowledge of me that I have been with Him? Or do they find that, after all, I differ from other men principally in the garb I wear and in the round of activities in which I engage? "For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified."
If holiness of life and a flaming zeal for the cause of Christ and His Church burns not in me as an all-consuming fire, how then may I expect that others will be drawn to seek that which I, by my life, proclaim to be an empty and a hollow thing? If I fail to inspire in those with whom I come in contact a sense of the reality of a life lived in Him, they will be quick to mark the difference between my profession and my real self.
"We must aim," says Canon Newbolt, "at the fuller development in our own souls of that holiness which ever must be the distinguishing badge and glory of the priesthood; in a life marked by the Cross; in a life which exhibits a knowledge of God's law and a delight in all that He has revealed; and in a personal life, clean, fresh, full, alive to God, watchful, eager for His work, devoted to the Church of which we are proud to be sons" (NEWBOLT: Priestly Ideals).
Such a life will commend our priesthood to others and inspire in them a desire to have a share in it. Such a life is our most powerful weapon and surely it is the weapon, above all others, which our Lord expects us to wield.
And may I suggest that we as Catholics have a peculiar responsibility in the matter of seeking out and fostering vocations? Catholics should and can do the work best, for this is the Catholic Church of which we are part. We who rejoice in the claiming of our full Catholic heritage, who proclaim our love for and our loyalty to the faith, dare we, of all people, be indifferent to the situation with which we are confronted?
We must have men, strong men, godly men, well-trained men, and loyal men for the work of the priesthood. Year after year wondrous opportunities are squandered because we fail to provide sufficient men to man the Church, to gather together the sheep which are dispersed abroad and to seek and to save those who have never heard the Shepherd's voice. What will our boasted Orders, our valid sacraments, our Catholic heritage profit us if there be not men to receive the Orders, to administer the sacraments, and to preach the faith?
"When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd. Then said He unto His disciples, 'The harvest truly is plenteous but the laborers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that He will send forth laborers into the harvest' " (Saint Matthew 9:36-38).
Nineteen hundred years have passed away since His sacred lips uttered those words and still the laborers are few and the harvest plenteous. Still He looks down in compassion upon the multitude. To His Church He committed the holy task of gathering in this harvest. Upon His Church He placed the responsibility of cooperating with Him in procuring the necessary laborers. Without sufficient laborers the Lord of the Harvest must of necessity fail to receive all which is rightfully His.
How long will His Church fail Him?
O my fellow Catholics, it is Christ the King who calls, and His voice rings out, clear as a clarion blast, across the turmoil of life—
"Give of thy sons to bear the message glorious,
Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way,
Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious,
And all thou spendest, Jesus will repay."