Smoky Mountains Sunrise

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Confronting Britain's Vocation Crisis: Shrewsbury Looks to American Dioceses for a Way Forward

By Francis Phillips

I blogged some time ago about a book I was reading: Renewal: How a new generation of faithful priests and bishops is revitalising the Catholic Church by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White. The book’s main theme, addressing the situation in the US, is that faithful bishops leading faithful dioceses attract more young men to the priesthood than dioceses where strong Catholic episcopal leadership appears to be weak and which seem to be run by committees.

In support of this contention, the book quotes the retired Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, who published an article in 1996, entitled “Crisis in Vocation?”, in which he wrote, “When dioceses and religious communities are unambiguous about the ordained priesthood and vowed religious life; where there is strong support for vocations, and a minimum of dissent about the male celibate priesthood and religious life, loyal to the Magisterium; when the bishop, priests, Religious and lay people are united in a vocation ministry – then there are documented increases in the number of candidates who respond to the call.”

The book mentions among others, Archbishop Carlson of St Louis who has worked tirelessly to build up the priesthood in the dioceses he has served. When he was Bishop of Saginaw, he named himself as director of vocations, an action that convinced young men in the diocese that “vocations are a top priority.” In addition, the bishop has established the “Operation Andrew” programme: a series of informal dinners, hosted by diocesan priests, in which a small group of young men considering a vocation meet with the bishop. Other dioceses have started similar initiatives.

All this makes entire sense. If you want an increase in vocations you must cultivate them, work for them, pray for them – and not blur the lines (as liberals in the Church are wont to do) between the ministerial priesthood and the priesthood of the laity. Thus I was delighted to read that Rt Rev Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, has announced his intention, at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday last week, “to open a house of discernment for men considering a vocation to the priesthood.”

The house will be at Shrewsbury Cathedral and will open in September 2015; it will offer a year-long programme to young men pondering whether they are called by God to the priesthood. Bishop Davies has ordered a prayer card for vocations, including a prayer he has composed himself, to be distributed to all the parishes in his diocese in preparation for this plan: “If we truly open our hearts in prayer within our families and parishes, I have no doubt this gift of new vocations will be given us” Davies says.

This is such a welcome change to the constant talk of a crisis in the priesthood and in the Church generally; “Ye men of little faith” as Our Lord might have responded to those bishops who see their task as managing decline in their own dioceses. Bishop Davies is a man of faith; he is confident that the crisis of vocations is “neither inexplicable nor irreversible” and he believes it can be overcome by prayer, encouragement and a renewed love of the priestly vocation. He has urged all the people in his diocese to play their part “in making an environment where vocations can flourish”.

This is the kind of leadership that lay people welcome – indeed long for. We love the Church, we love the Mass and we love our priests. We don’t welcome an increase in lay Eucharistic services as a “sign of the Holy Spirit at work”, as is sometimes said. Jesus said “The harvest is ready” – as it always is. When he added “the labourers are few”, it was a call, a summons, a plea for evangelisation. The Diocese of Shrewsbury, under the determined leadership of Bishop Davies, is responding to that call of Christ. Let’s hope other dioceses will be inspired to start similar initiatives.

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