Father James Gould and the hallmarks of successful vocations promotion

Father James Gould and the hallmarks of successful vocations promotion

Michael Rose

Father James Gould is best known for being one of the most successful vocations directors in the United States since the Second Vatican Council. For fifteen years, from 1985 until 2000, he was charged with promoting and fostering vocations to the priesthood for the Diocese of Arlington under Bishop John Keating.

During that time, the relatively small diocese of sixty-five parishes in northern Virginia produced an average of eight new priests each year. By the year 2000, the average age of priests in Arlington was forty-two - twenty years below the national average! What makes these statistics even more impressive is that this was accomplished during a time of vocations drought throughout much of the Western world.

The formula for his success? "Unswerving allegiance to the Pope and magisterial teaching; perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in parishes, with an emphasis on praying for vocations; and a strong effort by a significant number of diocesan priests who extend themselves to help young men remain open to the Lord's will in their lives," Fr Gould says.

Need for simplicity

Some vocations offices over the past three or four decades have tried to implement complicated programs to attract men to the priesthood. But Fr Gould took a different approach. There was no "vocations team" involved with the Diocese's Office of Vocations while he was director. "Teams tend to be a bureaucratic burden, he explains, "with all sorts of agendas that cost great amounts of money. Simplicity, as much as generosity, is a virtue for vocations directors."

Rather than spending his time with "paper projects," Fr Gould preferred to travel to parishes to preach about priestly vocations at Sunday Masses, as well as to groups at schools, colleges, scout retreats, Knights of Columbus councils, and even military bases. This, he says, gave him a chance to look into the eyes of parishioners and talk directly to them about fostering and promoting vocations to the priesthood in the Catholic Church.

The Diocese of Arlington set very concrete goals for vocations during his tenure. Each year, he explains, "we looked for ten new priesthood candidates, rather than ten percent increases. "Ten men is a concrete goal, and every priest plays a part in achieving this goal."

Only in a couple of years during his time as vocations director did the diocese fall short of that goal. But one year Arlington had twenty-two new men entering seminary - more than enough to make up for some of the other years. Consequently, today the Diocese of Arlington has no "priest shortage," as other American dioceses increasingly do.

Fr Gould also attributes the vocations success in the Arlington Diocese to the presence of the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, where the sisters constantly pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. "They are very dear to the heart and soul of the Diocese," he says. This spiritual aspect must always be present, he adds, if any success in vocations is to be expected or even hoped for.

Still another reason for success was the presence of two good bishops. First, Bishop Thomas Welch, himself once a seminary rector, judged the success of priests by how effectively Jesus Christ "got across the Potomac River" each Monday morning, a reference to residents of northern Virginia who commuted to work in Washington.

Said Fr Gould of Bishop Welch: "He expected the priests to be men of prayer who could preach with courage, teach with clarity, and serve with charity." It was Bishop Welch, later the Bishop of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who invited the Poor Clares into the Diocese. The Bishop's goal, he says, was to synthesise the academic, social, and spiritual lives of his parishioners, which was the same goal he had for his seminarians.

The second Bishop was John Keating, who, says Fr Gould, actively sought out men who demonstrated prayer, generosity, hard work and sacrifice. Fr Gould calls these qualities the "four marks of a vocation" and stresses their importance for priests and seminarians.

For the candidate in seminary, prayer comes first. "He has to develop a solid prayer life - going to Mass every day, saying a daily Rosary, and he should pick a saint who is clearly an advocate for him," suggests Fr Gould, who says that, as a child, he picked St Joseph - figuring he wasn't busy, since everyone was talking to the Blessed Virgin.

Centrality of Mass

Without prayer, Fr Gould emphasises, the ordained priest can't even hope to partake properly in the source and summit of the Catholic priesthood. And that is, of course, the Holy Mass. "It's the most important part of the day. Every intention I have for each day goes into that Mass. If you're going to represent the Lord in persona Christi [in the person of Christ], you've got to be able to talk to Him, and you have to want to talk to Him. For the priest, preaching, teaching, and sanctifying is rooted in the Catholic Mass." Prayer is the absolute-bare-minimum prerequisite.

Hard work is the second mark. "I always said I'd like to send every seminarian to a hardware store to work for a summer. In a hardware store, you not only learn the practical skills of plumbing, electricity and mechanics, but you also learn personalities. You learn about people from those who come in. You learn something about the business world. You interact with people. You're always talking. And you're always service-oriented.

"The greatest malady in the priesthood today," adds Fr Gould, "is not 'liberals' or 'conservatives.' It's laziness and indifference. In this age of 'collaborative ministry' with the laity, many priests may have slipped away from the meaning of hard work. They don't do house calls. They don't teach CCD. They don't visit the grammar school, and they don't teach RCIA - and that's a problem."

Generosity comes next, he says. "The candidate has to be able to answer the question: What are you going to give these people? That's what generosity involves. I've got that old Irish superstition that says that if you're not generous to people in need, then you're not going to get what you need" - and he makes it a point to live by that maxim.

In his own priesthood, Fr Gould has realised the necessity of generosity many times over. One particularly remarkable incident came when he was made pastor of St Raymond's in Alexandria, Virginia. He was charged with the tremendous task of building a church building, school and rectory for this recently founded parish. Part of building a new parish from the ground floor up is the daunting and often unpopular task of fundraising.

Fr Gould's task at St Raymond's was even more daunting than for most priests put into that position. Sadly, his predecessor was discovered to have been embezzling church funds on a rather grand scale and was swiftly dismissed from the diocese. Many Catholics in the parish who had trusted the former pastor to be a good steward of their donations - something they likely expected of any Catholic priest - were crushed.

Sacrifice

In an effort to restore trust in the parish, Fr Gould was primarily concerned with exercising the virtue of generosity. "I came in and told the parishioners on my second weekend that I was going to give a year's salary to the church building project. And then the next year, after completing the pledge for a year's salary, I called the parish finance committee together and said I was going to give $10,000 over the next five years. After that, the people in the parish came out of nowhere with generosity and raised $2 million almost overnight. Now we've got more than $8 million raised for a $9.2 million project." That's not a bad start in a parish that just two years before was deeply wounded by a ruinous financial scandal.

The virtue of generosity is intimately connected with sacrifice, the last of the four marks of a vocation. Many people think that this should be first, but it should come last, Fr Gould says. And what exactly should aspiring priests be sacrificing? The first thing that comes to mind for most people is giving up marriage and family life. "Everyone wants to talk about sacrifice first," he adds. "But without prayer, without hard work, without generosity, sacrifice would be meaningless in the life of a priest or anyone else."

The four marks of a vocation are manifest in the lives of so many priests in northern Virginia that vocations are encouraged by giving good example. "It's like in business: if you have something good to sell, people will invest in it." And as vocations director, Fr Gould has long had a vested interest in seeing that he has a good "product to sell" to young men discerning the vocations call.

Another important aspect in the life of any vocations director is the selection process of candidates for the priesthood. Fr Gould readily admits that for the past four decades some vocation directors have not faithfully fulfilled their duty in selecting the proper candidates: "Working in vocations is a two-way street. There are candidates to be avoided, and those to be promoted. In the topsy-turvy world of the past four decades, someone switched the street signs. Vice became virtue and virtue vice."

In fact, there have been plenty of highly suitable good men, he says, who have been turned away simply for embracing the teachings of the Church, especially about the nature of the priesthood and about the more controversial issues of sexual morality. For Fr Gould, however, acceptance of the Church's teachings is a prerequisite for admission to a seminary as a candidate for the Diocese of Arlington - as any conscientious Catholic would expect.

Long before the end of Fr Gould's fifteen-year tenure, he says, he realised well enough that homosexuals don't belong in all-male, celibate seminaries. "There were a few cases where homosexuals were aggressive after others in the seminary," he remembers, and had to be dismissed. Some of them would get past me during the interview process, and once or twice we had to dismiss a candidate because of homosexual activity."

It is instructive to note, he adds, that no psychological test proves homosexuality: "You pretty much have to take the candidate's word for it. Most of the time the homosexual's psychiatric profile will say 'narcissistic.' And that's telling. He often has a very strong interest in the self" - something not conducive to the ministry of the priesthood.

Faith and morals

To acknowledge that there is a problem within the ranks of the priesthood requires faith and morals. "Wherever there's a faith problem, there's a moral problem. Wherever there's a moral problem, there's a faith problem. That's a rule of the confessional," says Fr Gould. "The two always walk hand in hand." And that points to the accompanying problem of dissent. Dissent from the teachings and disciplines of the Catholic Church is an issue that's directly related to the moral problem. That has to be openly recognised by everyone in the Church, he stresses.

After all, he adds, the duty of a priest is to raise people to a higher standard of holiness, to enhance the consciences of all - believers and non-believers - to understand that virtues will always attract and vices will always divide. "We're called to save souls, and we should never lose sight of that." And, despite all obstacles, Fr Gould is very optimistic about the future of the Catholic priesthood in the United States. In every era there have been problems in the priesthood; but these problems, as serious as they sometimes have been, have always been overcome by the grace of God and with fidelity and obedience to God's will by clergy and laity alike.

It's no different now, Fr Gould believes, as long as we don't fall prey to denial, one of the worst enemies of the priesthood and the Catholic Church in recent times. Only by facing these problems head-on can we maintain a solid, healthy priesthood. Fr Gould's life is proof positive of that.

From Priest: Portraits of Ten Good Men Serving the Church Today © Michael Rose. Published by Sophia Institute Press, Box 5284, Manchester NH 03108, USA. www.sophiainstitute.com/
Available from AD Books and John XXIII Co-op Bookshop.

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