The dramatic fall-off in applicants for the priesthood, beginning about the early seventies had various causes. While there were always families who loved and kept God's law, there were many more, it would seem, who, not accepting the teaching of Humanae Vitae of Pope Paul VI, and falling generally into a secular lifestyle, got away from sacraments and prayer.
This now applies to over 80 per cent of Catholics in Australia. Numbers of families who were power- houses of the generosity required for producing priests, therefore, have largely disappeared.
Fancy new and unnecessarily complicated religious education programs in the schools left students with, at very best, vague ideas about the Catholic Faith and its priesthood. Who wants to be a priest when they do not know what it is or is for?
Seminaries went modernist, and good men were frightened away by the temptations against faith arising from lectures and lecturers. I recall steering one young applicant away from the local seminary to one which was trustworthy. He is a priest now, and his own diocese lost his good services. Others were ejected as narrow for being truly Catholic, and are now serving elsewhere, much to our loss.
I recall one professor trying to convince me that my understanding of God as being unchanging and His Truth as being eternal was merely a theological "position". He was not very good at metaphysics apparently.
People have been complaining for years about the loss of reverence at Mass and in churches as places of prayer - much to do with the unnecessary hiding of tabernacles and hiding of devotion in the conduct of the Sacred Liturgy. Here we physicians must heal ourselves!
All this has led to a loss of zeal for building up and spreading the Catholic Faith - Christ's Good News - and so to a falling away of vocations to the priesthood.
Christ's call cannot be heard through the din of error, nor can his Person be seen through the dust storms of self-will. Those fishermen left their boats because they could not resist the attraction of Jesus of Nazareth. They wanted to go where he went and do what he did and receive what he wanted to give them. Finally they could not help but spend themselves telling the world about him. "The love of Christ drives us on", stated Paul.
Herein lies the essence of the call to the priesthood. The priest celebrates Mass to continue the Lord's saving Sacrifice, he absolves from sin to keep alive the reason for Christ's Incarnation; he preaches Christ to the world because Christ's is its essential need; he begets spiritual children for God and matures them in the Holy Spirit; he sanctifies their life-giving love, and he builds them into the Lord's embrace when they are suffering. He hears their worries, he builds their churches and schools, and he keeps his eyes ever alert for those of generous heart who might also want to live for Christ and not for themselves.
It might seem elementary, but if a priest is to be and be seen to be "another Christ" among the people, then he has to do all the sacred things just listed, and he must believe in them and their relevance. If he does this, he will become intriguing to the minds of his people, whom "the world" tries to smother under its stifling materialism, and especially to the minds of those eligible men who begin to see the priesthood as containing the healing power of Christ and, therefore, as relevant, even essential, to solving the problems of men and restoring hope to him.
If, God forbid, a priest loses his grip on these spiritual realities, which he will do if he stops praying, then he has to do something else with what we might call his interest energy. So he, and those who think as he does, do things like turning liturgy into entertainment and religious education into guidelines designed to make a person satisfied with his own erroneous conscience.
Thus we have the masses running away from the Mass. They come with a desire, recognised or otherwise, for spiritual fulfilment, but not being able to get anything out of this new, disguised "Christ," they devise their own personal spiritual system; but this cannot satisfy either - only the real Christ can do that - so they lose their respect for the Church, mistaking the new "stage scenery" version for the reality.
Christ at the centre
If we want priests, we must restore Christ to the centre of his Church, by training our people to live his way, to know his truth, to live with his life in them: simply, too, to love him. The "beloved disciple" comes to mind, the young apostle, John. Surely the highest peaks of all the Sacred Scriptures are in his account of Jesus' own exposé at the Last Supper of his divine and human love for all, especially those present, his first priests.
From a laity so developed, we will have no shortage of men who will be devoted to him, with his vision of how to be practical in lifting mankind out of the doldrums.
Working with the true Christ, today's true Catholics must restore to, or preserve, prayer and sacrifice in their families, catechesis faithful to the Magisterium, and its terminology, in our schools and seminaries, devout reverence and fidelity to liturgical norms in our liturgies.
When we have done this, we will have removed those obstacles to grace, truth and right, which have for so long prevented the free flow of God's grace in His Church.
Then we shall have plenty of priests again.
Fr John O'Neill is parish priest of Doonside in the Parramatta Diocese, NSW.