By RANDLE CHRISTIAN
It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has been struggling with a shortage of priests and religious for some time now. What may surprise many people, though, is that a significant percentage of young people who are active in the Church have considered a religious vocation.
In a recent study of over 6,000 teen-agers conducted by a Georgetown University research group for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 30 percent of those surveyed said they had thought about pursuing religious life.
One thing that may be keeping them from following up on their inclinations is lack of parental support. Only 26 percent of the young men and 15 percent of the young women who were interested in a vocation in the Church received encouragement from their parents, the study found.
“Parents are the missing link,” said Sister Julienne Guy, a member of the conference and a long-time educator in Columbia-area Catholic schools. “Religious are talking to kids, the NRVC (the National Religious Vocations Conference) is talking to kids. All of a sudden we realized — no one is talking to parents.
In one effort to engage more parents in promoting vocations, the NRVC held dozens of gatherings around the country last year where parents were invited to fill out surveys and discuss their attitudes about the priesthood and religious life. St. Joseph Church in Columbia participated in the study. The resulting comments — some 2,000 pages of them were collected nationwide — were then summarized and will be presented to participating parishes this year. Members of St. Joseph will get a chance to hear the results from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 26, in Kamler Hall.
Sister Julienne, who led the St. Joseph group, said parents throughout the country were very honest in expressing their thoughts on religious vocations. Their frankness helped to point out problems that the Church as a whole needs to address if it is to attract more people to religious life. In his synopsis of the results, veteran Catholic journalist Kevin Axe discussed some of the existing parental attitudes hindering the growth of vocations:
“In less than two generations, at least for these parents, the once-fertile field of parental honor, respect, almost adulation of priests and religious has withered to a near desert of neutrality. They’re not negative, just neutral. And these are church-going Catholic parents, at least committed enough to be invited to these vocations gatherings.
“Despite this apathy, however, the biggest task ahead is not one of persuasion. First must come grassroots adult education of Catholic parents like these. Most of them are quick to admit they have no idea what priests, sisters and brothers do these days. They say most of their role models have disappeared. They view priests from 30 pews back in church on Sundays, and that’s the extent of contact for most of them.”
Parents also said the celibacy required of priests and religious made them reluctant to encourage vocations in their children. Parents want to become grandparents, and they want someone to carry on the family name. With today’s smaller families, they are reluctant to share one of their children with the Church, for fear they might lose these opportunities. They also cited their concern about the loneliness and stress they felt was part of religious life and their objections to women being barred from the priesthood.
While parents can significantly influence whether their children pursue a religious vocation, they alone are not responsible for the current shortage of sisters, priests and brothers. The enormous social changes of the 1960s and early 1970s also had a significant effect on vocations, according to research compiled by the NCCB and the United States Catholic Conference. These changes, including the sexual revolution, questioning of authority and commitment, the exodus of record numbers of priests and religious, and the women’s movement all influenced the decline in vocations, as did a growing desire for material success.
Nor was the Catholic Church alone in experiencing the effects of these societal shifts. In the past 25 years, the number of men entering the United Methodist seminaries dropped by 33 percent and the number of seminarians in the Evangelical Lutheran Church dropped by one fourth, the research shows.
There are signs that society may be undergoing another sea change, this time toward spirituality, Sister Julienne said. While studying at the School of Applied Theology, a Jesuit school affiliated with University of California at Berkeley, Sister Julienne was surprised at how many young people were coming to ecumenical and Catholic prayer services.
“There’s a searching, a longing for God,” Sister Julienne said. She sees the same interest at the St. Thomas More Student Center on the University of South Carolina campus in Columbia, where she is director of Christian formation.
Father Jeffrey Kendall, parochial vicar at St. Joseph, also believes that people are tiring of a life based mainly on materialism and secularism. “In the last 30 years, there was a turn toward godlessness. Godlessness is empty,” Father Kendall said. “It doesn’t make you happy. There is no foundation to stand on. Only God can give you that.”
This renewed interest in spirituality could translate into more vocations. Father Kendall says he speaks to about one man a month, on average, who is interested in the priesthood. He also meets regularly with a group of men who are considering a religious vocation. St. Joseph is itself a good indication of a growing interest in vocations with three parishioners currently in seminary and one postulant in Rome. The Diocese of Charleston has 12 seminarians currently studying for the priesthood, three to be ordained this summer.
The diocese has taken several steps to promote vocations. With the approval of Bishop David Thompson, Father Henry Barron, vicar for vocations, established parish vocations committees about two years ago. So far, around 30 percent of parishes in the diocese have formed vocations committees, whose purpose is to educate parishioners about religious life and pray for vocations. The diocese also sponsors regular discernment retreats for men and women interested in entering the Church. But, Father Kendall says, vocations still begin at home; “All vocations are nurtured in the family, whether it’s single life, married life or religious life.”
Neither Sister Julienne nor Father Kendall has any regrets about their chosen work. “I can’t imagine that I could be happy in any other walk of life,” Sister Julienne said. “I was going another way, but the Ursulines turned my life around, and God was the focus of my life. It was very fulfilling for me.”
Father Kendall, who converted to Catholicism eight years ago, has been equally rewarded by the priesthood. “It completely changed my life. What I found in the Catholic Church were the answers to questions I had been seeking all my life, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, emotional. I was really fulfilled in becoming a priest because that is what God called me to do.”
Sister Julienne and Father Kendall will share their feelings on religious life with fellow parishioners at the Jan. 26 meeting. They hope their stories will allay some of the concerns parents may have about having their children enter religious life. “The challenges are greater now,” Father Kendall said. “But it’s not a bad time to be a priest. It’s a great time to be a priest.”