By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
The Catholic Church in the United States is “in for tough times” if vocations to the priesthood and religious life don’t increase significantly in the coming years, a speaker told priests, lay people and religious men and women who gathered at the Cathedral of the Assumption Saturday.
“We need to raise an alarm,” said Sam Alzheimer, the speaker at the Archdiocese of Louisville’s first Vocation Conference. “We have to put absolute trust in the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the vocation director,” he told his listeners. “But we need to do our part.”
About 60 people attended the conference, designed to help people of the archdiocese to understand the state of vocations here and to help them promote vocations in their parishes. Organizers plan to make it an annual event for pastors, lay people, parish staff, campus ministers, religious communities and others interested in encouraging vocations.
Alzheimer is the founder of Vianney Vocations, a company that helps religious orders and dioceses — including the Archdiocese of Louisville — foster vocations.
He presented a variety of statisics during the conference that demonstrated the decline of vocations among religious orders and the priesthood in the last four decades.
“Catholic men are becoming less likely to become priests statistically,” he said. That means “each priest isn’t just serving more people, but parishes are getting even larger,” he added.
Alzheimer estimates that the Archdiocese of Louisville needs to receive at least eight men in seminary formation each year in
order to maintain its current numbers.
At present, the Archdiocese of Louisville has 121 active priests. Eighty-three of those are diocesan priests, and 38 are from religious orders. That represents a 45-percent decrease in the last 20 years, said Alzheimer. In 1990, he said, the archdiocese had 155 diocesan priests and 73 from religious orders.
“Keep in mind,” he said, “you have 111 parishes in the archdiocese. When a bishop has only 10 more priests than he has parishes … you become spread very thin.”
That means fewer priests are available to serve in other roles, such as in chaplaincies and diocesan agencies.
He also noted that 22 priests will be retiring in the next five years, while the archdiocese may have 11 ordinations in that same time period, if its current seminarians go through with ordination.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, who opened the conference with Mass, noted that the picture in the Archdiocese of Louisville sounds gloomy statistically. But, he said, the archdiocese has prepared for such a shortage.
“Three years ago when we started Building a Future of Hope, we estimated we would need 25-30 seminarians — six to seven per year,” the archbishop said in an interview during a break in the program. “We’ve made tremendous progress with regard to the number of seminarians who’ve been accepted and those who are going to be ordained.”
Father Jeffrey Shooner, director of the Vocations Office and the vicar for priests, said the Archdiocese of Louisville currently has 16 seminarians in formation for the diocesan priesthood. Three are to be ordained priests in May. And three others are to be ordained deacons — which precedes presbyteral ordination — next month.
These statistics show improvement, and that’s good news that should be proclaimed, said the archbishop.
In addition to increasing numbers of seminarians, the archdiocese’s shortage of priests will be alleviated by priests from religious communities, he said.
“One of the greatest blessings we have experienced is that some religious communities are seeing an increase in novices and seminarians,” he said, noting in particular religious order priests who have come from India. “Their presence is a great blessing.
“I think we are going to maintain the numbers of parishes staffed by religious communities and then maybe see an increase. I think that is a hopeful side.”
Benedictine Brother Silas Henderson, a monk from
Saint Meinrad Archabbey and managing editor of its Abbey Press Publications, said Saint Meinrad has been “holding steady” in recent years. The abbey in Southern Indiana has received about two dozen novices in the last 10 years. Currently five men are in formation, and two candidates are to begin formation in May.
Brother Henderson and 15 other men and women religious representing their communities also attended the conference. They set up displays in the undercroft of the Cathedral to exhibit information about their work and lives.
Father Shooner, director of the vocation office, said he hopes the conference “energizes” participants to take what they have learned to their parishes and use it to create a “culture of vocations” — one in which young people consider a religious vocation to a be a real possibility.
“We’re trying to create an environment where more men and women will respond to their calling,” he said. “Christ calls, and we encourage people.”
While much of the conference focused on the priesthood, Alzheimer said declines in the numbers of religious sisters and brothers also are problematic for the church, especially in its schools that were once staffed largely by religious.
He noted that vocations among women to religious life also have seen a dramatic decline. Sisters numbered 1,482 in the archdiocese in 1970, compared to 621 today.
In addition to statistics, Alzheimer told the participants about some of the challenges that face young people who are in discernment and gave them some tips about how to influence potential candidates.
“There’s a fear of unworthiness,” he noted. “It’s almost a knee-jerk reaction with a guy considering the priesthood.”
Celibacy is also a challenge “in a sex-saturated society,” he said.
The number-one influence on a man considering the priesthood is “the example of other priests,” he said.
Alzheimer said there’s also a demonstrated link between religious vocations and families that pray together, especially those that spend time in eucharistic adoration or belong to religious groups, such as Catholic home-school groups.
People in parishes who want to encourage vocations can do several things, Alzheimer added.
The first is to invite young people to consider religious life, such as telling a young person they would make a good sister. It’s also important for parishes to form vocation awareness committees, he said. Campus ministers have an important role to play, too, he said.
Alzheimer also encouraged parishes to highlight periods devoted to vocations, such as the World Day for Consecrated Life and Vocations Awareness Week. He also suggested parishes talk to altar servers about religious vocations.
“This is a perfect group — we need to be deliberate in the way we present the possibility of the priesthood or a religious vocation to these boys and girls,” he said.