There's a very interesting letter from Fr. Gerard Dunne OP, the Vocation Director of the Dominican Community, in this week's Irish Catholic. It's an open letter to the bishops of Ireland, and it doesn't pull its punches.
Fr. Dunne believes that not enough is being done to promote vocations in Ireland, and that the subject is not taken seriously enough by the Irish hierarchy.
I found this passage especially interesting:
In 2009, you courageously supported and promoted the 'Year of Vocation'. The original concept to have the year to pray for and support priestly and religious vocations soon became a Year of Vocation for all types of vocation. The year quickly lost focus as the church decided to include the valuable vocation to marriage and single life and others. To me, it appeared that there was a fear in promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life - we dare not offend anyone! A great opportunity was lost. Why are you afraid of singling out the joy of vocation to priesthood?
It's all too easy to criticize the Irish bishops, and I don't like doing it. God knows the enormous task they face, and we should never forget that a tone of respect and even deference is appropriate towards them.
But the excessively wide focus that Fr. Dunne laments-- the apparent refusal to concentrate upon vocations to religious life, and the need to drag in all the other forms of vocation on every occasion-- is frustrating.
I think the same thing applies to evangelization. It seems that every discussion of the New Evangelization ends up being about everything except evangelization. It becomes a discussion about prayer, about the family, about listening-- all of which are important, and a part of evangelization, but at some point the Gospel has to be proclaimed to unbelievers.
(I'm amused at how often Catholics quote the words attributed to St. Francis-- "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words"-- and claim that they evangelize through the way they live, while at the same time-- or rather, at other times-- insisting that they don't think they are morally any better than non-Christians. If that's the case, then what is all this silent evangelization that is apparently going on?)
But back to vocations. The good news is that this year there are twenty men entering the seminary in Maynooth, which is higher than the last few years-- especially last year, when a mere twelve entered. The bad news is that this is (obviously) not even nearly enough to meet the needs of Ireland's Catholics-- and also that only about sixty per cent of seminarians, or so I have read, go on to be ordained.
It's hard even to imagine what will become of Irish Catholicism in ten or twenty years or thirty years. Unconsciously, we all imagine that things will pretty much go on as they always have done, but that seems hardly possible. We have hardly any young priests. Our congregations are mostly white-haired (though it differs a lot from parish to parish, even in Dublin).
What will happen? Will Catholics who are now in their forties and fifties start going to Mass when they hit their sixties and seventies, replacing the current bulk of elderly worshippers? People often get more serious about their faith as they age (as indeed they should), and this is a possibility. Will the tide turn, and will more people of all ages start going to Mass? There's no reason to rule this possibility out.
But it seems all too possible that we will plunge over the precipice, that the current generation of elderly Mass-goers will die and not be replaced, and that the same thing will happen in an even more drastic form with our priests. Will there be daily Mass, outside the cathedrals and a few more prominent churches? Will the Church have to relinquish control of its schools, hospitals and universities? Will Catholics have to travel long distances to attend Mass? Will RTE and The Irish Times even bother bashing the Church any more? Will the Church even be able to hold onto its churches, never mind find congregations or priests for them?
I'm reminded of a time when I was visiting my now-wife, Michelle, in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is plagued by extreme weather and hurricanes are not at all an uncommon part of life there. So it was no novelty for Michelle, but it was certainly one for me, as one evening intense winds raged about the apartment and we sat in front of an all-day weather channel, where presenters were excitedly discussing animated maps and keeping a track of the places where power had been lost.
At any moment, I knew, the electricity could cut out. And up until that moment, we had light, and the comforting voices on the television, and all the conveniences and diversions of civilization. But the moment the power went, all of that was gone, and we were in a completely different world. (As a matter of fact, we were never cut off that night, thank God-- power cuts are not the worst of it, and reports of falling trees crashing into houses and even of fatalities are not uncommon, after these storms.)
As long as you were in a lit-up house, with television presenters excitedly discussing the storm, it was all kind of fun, and the danger seemed unreal and far-away. Even the prospect of being plunged into blackness seemed unreal and far-away.
That's how I feel about the crisis in the Irish Catholic Church today. Collapse may be only a decade or two away but it's hard to really appreciate the reality of this, as long as we regularly hear Archbishops on the radio and see crowds filing out of our local church. We accept it in theory, when we are thinking about it, but we can't really envisage an Ireland where the Catholic Church has as much cultural importance as, say, the Methodists. (Although it's difficult to find a suitable analogy because even a drastically-diminished Catholic Church would have a unique status in Ireland, given its history.)
But enough gloom. An increase in the number of seminarians is cause to be thankful, and above all we should remember to pray for new vocations every day. As Fr. Dunne puts it: " The men who have presented themselves as candidates to test their vocation are brave. They are the product of their faith communities, parishes and families. Most of all they are the product of prayer of the very many Irish Catholics who fervently pray for vocations on a regular basis. Without their prayer, you can be certain that there would be fewer vocations."