The response to this problem used to be pretty straightforward: work harder with young people to cultivate vocations, involve more lay people in pastoral ministry, take good care of the priests we already have and above all, pray to the Lord of the Harvest. And not everything is bleak. There are dioceses and religious orders right here in the U.S. which are receiving impressive numbers of candidates. Why not study what they are doing, and try to imitate it?
All this seems most reasonable. However, things are not so simple in the U.S. Catholic Church. The "priest shortage" has been used in amazing ways. I remember when I was taking an orientation course back in Maryknoll, NY. There were about 20 of us, ten sisters and the same number of priests. The sister who ran the course suggested we should not have daily Mass because when we get in the missions it won't always be possible. Better to prepare now. We priests, dumb wimps that we are, all nodded obediently, "You must be right, Sister." It took one of the sisters to cut through the baloney. She pointed out the obvious: we were Westchester County, not the jungles of Brazil and we had a surplus of priests in the room.
Some of the folks who talk most about the "priest shortage" do not in fact want priests. They desire a whole new "model" of church. It can be summed up in one word: egalitarianism. We are all the same and hierarchy is an affront to human dignity. Jeanne Dixon (may she rest in peace) could have enhanced her reputation by making this astonishing prediction: "Women's Ordination Conference will oppose ordination of women." Yet that is exactly what they did. They argued that the priesthood is so enmeshed with the notion of hierarchy that it would be wrong for women (or anyone) to seek ordination! To grasp this apparent contradiction, one needs to recognize that their real goal is to level the church. It turns out that the leveling process not only applies to Holy Orders, but to church doctrine as well.
In one way the leveling process (especially in catechetics) has already solved the priest shortage. It has eliminated from Sunday Mass most of our young adults—and could quickly drive immigrants out of the Church. I have no doubt that our young people have drifted away or joined evangelical churches, because we gave them no positive reason for being Catholic. I have on occasion tried to get catechetical leaders to see what happens when we relativize the faith. Flannery O'Conner said it most pithily, "If Holy Communion is just a sign, the hell with it." Our young people have come to that eminently logical conclusion.
I do not believe that making us all the same is the solution to the priest shortage. Not that I cling to any supposed privileges in being a priest. All in all, it is a burden, but one I and other priests joyfully embrace because we believe this is God's will for us individually and that the priesthood is at the heart of the Church which Jesus established.
What then is the solution? Jesus has already given it, "The harvest is plentiful, but laborers are few. Therefore pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out laborers." Pope St. Gregory applied that first of all to his own priests. "There are many priests," he said, "but few laborers." We need to pray to be pushed out ourselves into the harvest. But something also happens to the lay people who pray for priestly vocations. The Lord illumines them why they need priests. We have less priests because people need us less. Consider that many priests after Vatican II went to study psychology. They believed that what the folks wanted from us was good counseling. Perhaps we felt that way because so few were coming to confession. People did not recognize that what they really needed from their priests was Christ's healing forgiveness. The answer, "Pray."
Prayer for priestly vocations would also help us understand the Mass which Vatican II calls the "source and summit of the Christian life." People have come to expect a lot from the Mass: to be uplifted, consoled, made welcome, inspired, fed, etc. All those are not the heart of the Eucharist, only desirable by-products. For a variety of reasons we have made Sunday Mass so complex that it has become too much for some of our priests. They sit on the sidelines—or have been shuffled to the bench. The answer to all this is not more organization, but what Our Lord commanded, "Pray."
Perhaps prayer would lead us to discover a place for those priests now sidelined. A simpler Sunday Mass might result and be a draw to people alienated by our present way of celebrating. I offer this suggestion with some trepidation because as pastor of a medium size parish, I know the importance of the Sunday liturgy for promoting a variety of parish programs and activities. Anyone who reads my homilies can see I am trying to move forward a complex operation. Still, if the Sunday Mass is the bridge between the people and God, we need to consider how to put less weight on that already sagging structure. The answer is not another liturgical manual, but the one Jesus gave, "Pray." Only prayer can enable us to overcome our numbness and lethargy to face the challenge Jesus has placed before us.
Why some dioceses, religious orders have many Priestly Vocations.