Every fall, the diocesan vocation directors in the U.S. gather for their annual convention. Here are some of the highlights from last week.
1. “The biggest challenge to the secular, atheistic mentality is a happy priest.”
As a group, Catholic priests are among the happiest people in America. So said Msgr. Stephen Rossetti in his hard-hitting (yet humorous) pre-convention workshop. But the culture is taking its toll. Psychologically, it is a huge challenge to take men out of a sexually distorted society and ask them to become celibate priests. While there is a new ardor among young seminarians, many come with psycho-sexual wounds that are difficult to heal.
2. The Vocation Director as servant
Are your brother priests helping you, or are you helping them? Fr. Kevin Gallagher suggests the latter as the proper mindset for vocation directors. A good vocation director sees himself as assisting pastors, youth ministers, campus ministers, etc. You simply can’t do it all. So befriend those who can do the heavy lifting—the personnel in various departments such as Catholic schools and religious education.
3. The minutia is complicated—but important.
Fr. Shawn McKnight has a demanding job at the USCCB. Fortunately, he is very, very good at it. He gave new vocation directors a briefing on the bishops’ vocation priorities, as well as a masterful overview of the PPF. While presenting new data from CARA, Fr. McKnight confirmed that ordination rates are growing at only 1% a year. We have a long way to go before we ordain enough men to replace retiring priests.
4. The priest as a joyful public person
I’m still unpacking Cardinal DiNardo’s dense exegesis of the Transfiguration. He unveiled insight after insight, shifting deftly from Greek etymology to colloquial expressions, e.g., “He blew their minds!”
On the topic of training priests, the cardinal emphasized that they need to take joy in being public people, especially within the liturgy. When joy is absent in a priest, he said, the Mass becomes either his “fun rubber ducky” or something that should be gotten over as quickly as possible. Citing St. John Chrysostom, he suggested that if a priest is overly reserved or celebrates liturgy poorly, “make him a monk.” (No offense to monks.)
5. Charlie Sheen > Martin Sheen > Fulton Sheen > Jesus
“Invade the world with the Internet!” cried Fr. Robert Barron in his keynote address, illustrating the point with an anecdote about a woman who was searching for clips of a raving Charlie Sheen and took a circuitous route back to the Church. He told us to “lead with the beautiful” and “don’t dumb down the message.” His overall rallying cry was to join the fight against the rising tide of atheism and secularism.
6. Sanctify the secular
In a seeming counterpoint to Fr. Barron, Life Teen spokesman Mark Hart told us to figure out how to be sublime in 140 characters or less—or risk losing a whole generation of screen-obsessed young people whose attention spans can barely stand a compound sentence like this one. With humor and passion, he offered “ten smooth stones” for reaching young people today. One piece of advice: fight the porn pandemic with the art of the Church. Folks, if you missed this talk, I highly recommend listening to it at the NCDVD site once the audio clips of the convention are posted. (You have to be an NCDVD member to do this.)
7. Discernment Groups just work.
Wow! There may be a silver bullet in vocation ministry after all. Discernment groups are having unprecedented success in dozens of dioceses. In places like Denver, Orlando, and Los Angeles, these small groups have become primary “feeder groups” for seminaries. My own insight, after creating the Melchizedek Project: the groups work primarily because they build relationships among young men and priests. And that leads into the final point…
8. “I have called you friends.”
The single biggest theme of the 2013 NCDVD Convention—confirmed again and again by our speakers—was that vocation work is, above all, relational. It’s about connecting on a human level—sharing a meal, taking a hike, listening with fatherly care, and ultimately, shepherding a man into an authentic encounter with Jesus, who alone can reveal his true vocation. The single best thing a priest can do to raise up a new generation of clergy is simply to spend time with young men, being a friend, mentor, and spiritual father.