By REV. MSGR. JAMES A. CARTER
Whenever two or more are gathered to discuss the critical, immediate shortage of priests in the Diocese of Charleston, someone usually tries to dismiss the complexity and gravity of the situation by proposing simple, even naive, solutions.
These solutions come from both sides of the spectrum. On the one hand, some people say the answer is to allow priests to marry, welcome back those Catholic priests who left active ministry for married life, and open ordination to women. The reason why these approaches will not work to solve our immediate needs is obvious. We belong to the universal Roman Catholic Church, which today reserves priestly ordination to celibate men. No one in the Diocese of Charleston can change this fact.
On the other hand, many people will say there is no shortage of vocations and point to a few dioceses and religious communities that seem immune to the problem. They accuse dioceses with a priest shortage of being too “selective” in accepting priests from other areas and selecting candidates for the seminary. In a Sept. 29, 1998, address “On Choosing Candidates for the Priesthood” to the National Association of Diocesan Vocation Directors convention, Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., spoke to this issue. “Clearly, Jesus did not choose flawless personalities….(but) none of us ought to risk challenging the grace of the Holy Spirit with candidates who are not merely unworthy, but even unsuitable for the public ordained ministry … we must also recognize that defective personalities, flawed motives and pathological characteristics in her ministers are challenges that even the Church must avoid if her mission is not to be stymied.”
Another often mentioned solution is to import priests from other dioceses and countries. While we have used this approach in the diocese, it is not going to solve our crisis. Some challenges to this approach include:
The shortage of priests is a global crisis. According to a recent Associated Press article, the number of priests in the world has declined by 2.8 percent since 1978 while the number of baptized Catholics has risen from 750 million to 990 million.
At a recent Vatican press conference, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said that the priest-short dioceses of Europe and North America must not view the church’s mission territory as a supply depot for extra priests and religious. Cardinal Tomko said the practice of exporting priests from mission lands “must be limited and re-ordered.”
Experience has shown that challenges arise when a priest from another culture is assigned to work in an American parish. Bureaucratic red tape can sabotage the most sincere efforts. Everything from identification papers to drivers licenses to visas can become complicated barriers. Most of these priests come with little or no knowledge of American culture and are assigned to parishes without another priest to serve as a mentor. Expectations about everything from lifestyle to compensation often do not meet with reality. Significant differences in liturgical styles, combined with unwillingness to compromise, cause tension in many places. These assignments often are for a year or less creating instability in parish life.
However, in the Diocese of Charleston, we are exploring available educational facilities of orientation for priests of other cultures both in their country of origin and in the United States. This will ease the culture shock for the minister and congregation when it is deemed appropriate to “share” priests from another country.
One solution that will work, in the long run, is prayer. It comes from the most reliable source. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2). This prayer can take many forms. We must all commit both to common and private prayer for vocations to the priesthood from our own parishes and diocese. It is in prayer that we can bring our many human solutions to the Lord and pray as Christ taught us: “Thy will be done.”
Msgr. Carter is vicar general and vicar for priests for the Diocese of Charleston.