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The news out of Pittsburgh is gut-wrenching for anyone who loves the Catholic Church. Two-thirds of the parishes, many of them beloved by generations, gone within five years. Why? Declining numbers of priests, says the bishop. So Pittsburgh has to retrench and deal with the new reality. A Church in decline, a Church in retreat, a Church where God has mysteriously ceased to call young people to the priesthood. Or to religious life. Or, if you look at the statistics, even to lifelong, fruitful, marriages. There are just no vocations to anything out there anymore. We have to close churches, there is no other way.
I hear this lament too often from people involved in the Church. It seems to be an accepted fact that God no longer calls people, that the Holy Spirit has abandoned us, and that slowly, and surely, the gates of Hell are prevailing against the Catholic Church.
But this assertion doesn’t even make sense. If God lied about knowing people and calling them by name, if Jesus lied about the gates of hell, if the Holy Spirit is no longer Paraclete but apoclete, than why are we keeping any churches open at all? Shouldn’t we just shut the whole operation down and sleep in on Sunday mornings?
It’s true. We’re in a vocations crisis. Priestly vocations may have been the bellwether, but it’s not because clergy can’t marry. Marriage is in decline too. Out-of-wedlock childbearing, broken families, kids who drift vocation-less for decades, these are all common now, even among people who were raised Catholic. The problem with this approach is that God has not stopped calling us. It’s that we’ve become unable, or unwilling, to listen. Or perhaps, thanks to our distracted world of iPhones and social media, we’ve completely drowned God out with noise. We need to encourage people away from that noise, and teach them how to hear that soft, still voice.
Look around: the parishes, youth groups, and dioceses that are “vocations powerhouses” emphasize time for quiet prayer and adoration. They encourage kids to praise God, to serve their neighbors, and to think and pray and ask about their vocation. The whole community comes together to encourage discernment. Vocations directors, seminarians, religious and married couples aren’t too shy to talk about their vocations and how they’ve seen God leading them in their own lives.
When vocations are important to a diocese, and actively pursued, God sends vocations. And not “just enough vocations to get by.” Jesus showed us again and again in the Gospels that when he gives, he gives superabundantly.
If your diocese is facing a huge lack of priests and religious in the next 20 years, if your pews are empty, your First Communion classes are dwindling and your young adults disappearing, never to be seen again once they’re confirmed, the answer is not to close the parishes.
The answer is to take a hard look at your approach to evangelizing youth and families. God is calling young people to the priesthood and religious life, and to marriage and babies, even in this culture and in this country. Is your diocese giving them the formation they need to be able to hear and answer those calls?
When I prayed for vocations, I didn’t mean God could have MY daughter!