“The vocation crisis isn’t really about the priesthood — it’s bigger,” said Fr. Jason Hage, who recently started his first pastorate at St. Mary’s in Hamilton and St. Joan of Arc in Morrisville. (Photo by Ashley M. Casey)
Over the spring and summer, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse has announced a slew of retirements, appointments, linkages and mergers of parishes across Central New York. This shuffling of pastors and joining together churches reflects the nationwide challenge facing the Catholic Church: how to care for the flock with fewer priests.
Danielle Cummings, chancellor of communications for the Syracuse diocese, said the diocese has seen 41 transitions (in priest assignments and retirements) this year.
“I think that has been a wakeup call for people,” she said. “More and more people are realizing the change isn’t coming — it’s here.”
In 1965, the year the Second Vatican Council concluded, there were 60,000 Catholic priests in the United States. By 2015, that number had fallen to 37,500. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), only 3,405 American men were enrolled in post-college seminaries, down from 8,159 in 1968.
“In other areas around the world that’s not the case,” Cummings said. “In Africa and Poland, the seminaries are very full.”
The American church has imported priests from other countries to fill the gap, but it has not been enough.
Greg Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, acknowledged the precipitous decline in the number of American Catholic priests in his Jan. 30 delivery of the Cardinal John Foley lecture at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania.
“Each year an average of about 400 new priests are ordained nationwide, while an average of 1,500 retire or die,” he said.
Shrinking congregations and dwindling numbers of new priests in the pipeline have caused the Syracuse diocese to consolidate two or more parishes into one — in the city of Syracuse, St. James Church and Our Lady of Lourdes Church have become Our Lady of Hope Church — or linked parishes together, as in the case of St. Augustine Church and St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Baldwinsville.
While mergers subsume one church into another, linked parishes retain their buildings and congregations, with a pastor dividing his time among the branches.
In southern Onondaga County, for instance, administrator Fr. James Carey shared pastoral duties with parochial vicar Fr. Robert Stephenson. Carey serves as administrator for the Church of the Nativity, which includes St. Joseph’s in LaFayette, Immaculate Conception in Pompey and St. Leo’s in Tully. Carey’s pastoral care area also includes the mission church of St. Patrick in Otisco and the Corpus Christi Oratory in Nedrow.
How can the church reverse the downward trend in seminary enrollment?
“That’s above my pay grade,” said Fr. Donald Maldari, SJ, associate professor of religious studies at Le Moyne College.
While he doesn’t have all the answers, Fr. Maldari posited three main factors for the decline: the diminished role of the church in people’s lives, the requirement of celibacy and the ban on ordaining women.
In the 1950s, there was a spike in people pursuing the priesthood or religious orders.
“The decline was to be expected because it was an artificial spike,” Fr. Maldari said, “but now it’s a crisis.”
As religion has moved toward the background of many Catholics’ lives, young men may be reluctant to commit to their lives to the priesthood.
“What the Catholic Church did a tremendous job of doing in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s was [taking advantage of] parochialism,” said Cummings, the diocese’s chancellor of communications.
Parishes often developed around areas with high concentrations of Italian, Irish or Polish families, who celebrated their heritage along with their faith.
“There was a certain pride — and there still is — to be a member of that parish,” Cummings said.
Now, as parishes link and merge, and people’s priorities shift toward secular matters, that pride is scattered.
“There’s so much distraction in our society. We’re constantly being redirected,” Cummings said. “It used to be people were redirected … to sit back and discern, ‘What is it I want to do with my life?’”
Fr. Joe Scardella, who recently moved from St. Mary’s in Baldwinsville to Holy Trinity Church in Fulton, said the vocations crisis stems from a “systemic problem” in today’s culture.
“There is a lack of sustained commitment in our society today. When my dad was hired, he worked for the same company for 45 years. No employer wants to keep an employee that long anymore, nor do employees stay with the same company for the long haul,” he said.
“A vocation to priesthood as it’s understood today … is not a vocation to a career,” Fr. Maldari said. “It’s kind of a lifestyle. It’s kind of equivalent to marriage.”
Fr. Jason Hage likened his relationship with God and commitment to the priesthood to his own parents’ loving marriage.
“It all starts in the home. Without my parents and my siblings [I wouldn’t be] a priest today,” said Fr. Hage, who began his first pastorate earlier this summer at St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton and St. Joan of Arc Mission in Morrisville. He also handles sacramental duties for Colgate University’s campus ministry.
Fr. Hage said while many Catholic men live a holy life through becoming husbands and fathers, priests give that up to become fathers to their congregations.
“For the sake of someone else’s family … I’m going to forgo my own family to be completely available to the parish,” he said. “All of a sudden, every home in the parish is my home.”
Fr. Scardella said there is increase in separated or divorced families, and young people are marrying later in life.
“Even many of those entering the seminary programs are doing so after having a career, then going on for theological studies,” he said. “It’s not just a clerical problem, but a problem throughout our society.”
Syracuse Bishop Robert Cunningham addressed the vocation issue in conjunction with marriage in his 2013 pastoral letter. “The universal call to holiness,” the bishop wrote, is “lived out in a loving family” for most Catholics. According to Fr. Hage, who graduated from Xavier University in 2008, people his age are less likely to get married in the church.
“With married life in the decline, I think the priesthood will also be in the decline,” Fr. Hage said. “It’s bigger than the priesthood. Not many people are approaching the church for marriage.”
While young Catholics may be reluctant to marry through the church, it’s not because they wish to remain celibate. Three years before his death in 2008, sociologist Dean R. Hoge published an article in the summer 2005 issue of Boston College Magazine examining the shortage of Catholic priests. According to Hoge’s 1985 survey of Catholic college students, the requirement for celibacy was the no. 1 factor that deterred young men from seeking a vocation as a priest.
“If celibacy were optional for diocesan priests, there would be an estimated fourfold increase in seminarians, and the priest shortage would be over,” Hoge wrote. “The ranks of priests would grow until the Church hit financial limits in its ability to train and support them.”
In March, Pope Francis told a German newspaper that the church needed to study the option of allowing “viri probati” — married men who have proved their virtue — enter the priesthood. Currently, the church allows married Episcopalian pastors to become Catholic priests, and in 2014 the pope granted the same to married Eastern Catholic priests.
Outside marriage, however, it appears that Francis and the church will not entertain discussion of lifting the celibacy requirement.
“Voluntary celibacy is not a solution,” Francis said.
As for the ordination of women, Francis declared last year that the ban will not be lifted in the foreseeable future. He cited the “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” St. John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter officially banning women from the priesthood, as the final word on the subject.
“On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear,” he told a Swedish journalist in 2016. “It was given by St. John Paul II and this remains.”
While women cannot expect to be able to join the priesthood any time soon, they do play other important roles in the church. According to CARA, two-thirds of women fill lay ecclesial ministry (LEM) roles, which include parish life coordinators, youth ministry leaders, directors of music and liturgy, Catholic school administrators and other positions.
“Most people who are active in parishes are women,” Fr. Maldari said. “Generally speaking, they do everything except the sacraments and the preaching.”
Cummings noted that her own position in the diocese shows that women are stepping into leadership roles in the church.
“You would not have seen that decades ago,” she said.
Since 2005, an initiative called “Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry” has been the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guide to governing LEM.
People for whom the priesthood is not an option — women and men alike — can still serve the church and their community through LEM, volunteering and the sacrament of marriage.
“What’s important is for people to contribute to the community as they are, and not take a lifestyle that they aren’t suited for,” Fr. Maldari said.
For Fr. Hage, the call to the priesthood was a “gentle knocking on the heart.” He said he is happy with his path, but he would have pursued a life of holiness even if he had not become a priest.
“If I never went into the priesthood, I’d still try to live a holy life as a married man,” he said.
In his 2013 pastoral letter, Bishop Cunningham called for families to foster a culture that is supportive of men and women considering a “consecrated life” — that is, becoming a nun, priest or member of a religious order.
“Often we ask our children and youth what they want to be when they grow up. Let me suggest we phrase the question differently and ask them: ‘What does God want you to be?’” Bishop Cunningham wrote. “It is a simple change but it acknowledges that God should be part of the conversation when a person is discerning a vocation.”
Cummings said the church is looking to families, community members and clergy to open the conversation with young Catholics.
“How many parents, how many families, how many pastors have asked a young person, ‘Have you considered the priesthood?’” she said. “That rolled off the tongue in the ‘50s.”
Cummings noted that the decline in priests is not the first wave of change the church has experienced.
“This is not new in the history of the church. It’s new for us because it’s during our lifetime,” she said. “I don’t think God ever intended for things to be exactly the same through the years. We have to be open to the change and be able to respond to the needs of the people today.”
Just as Jesus Christ used the “media of his time,” Cummings said, through storytelling and fellowship gatherings, today’s church uses social media and the celebration of Mass to bring Catholics together. Spreading the message has evolved out of necessity.
As the church continues in its efforts to recruit young men to consider the priesthood, parishes will have to rely on lay ministers.
“My goal is to create a strong lay team,” Fr. Hage said.
Participating in LEM or volunteering gives parishioners a sense of agency in their faith.
“People never thought of themselves as the church,” Fr. Hage said. “When they show up, the church shows up.”
Cummings echoed that statement.
“We are all church together, but we have to be active,” she said.
“It is a challenge to find people who want to commit to service in the church for a sustained time, but those who are working in our parishes are people of strong faith and they have great zeal for the growth of the Catholic community,” Fr. Scardella said. “Collaborative ministry among parishes is going to be very important but with the right leadership, great things can happen.”
Above all, according to Fr. Hage, Catholics must consider how they can best serve their community instead of focusing on their individual desires.
“What is a happy life?” he mused. “For a Catholic, it’s giving away life and love for the world.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.