A summit of Catholic vocations leaders in North America will be held in Montreal, Canada, between 18-21 April 2002, ostensibly to find new ways to attract people to the priesthood, religious and consecrated life.
But the working document of the Third Continental Congress on Vocations to the Ordained Ministry and Consecrated Life has raised eyebrows - mainly because it seems to overlook the success stories of dioceses and congregations that have been attracting vocations, according to a National Catholic Register report (6 January 2002).
It was news to Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins, for instance, to read the document's contention that no congregations have more candidates than they can comfortably accommodate.
Out of room
Sister Catherine Marie is the vocations director of the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia, in Nashville, Tennessee. The Nashville Dominicans have 200 sisters, and of the 18 that joined in 2001, a dozen have to use sleeping bags until more living space is built. Many sisters have to stand outside the chapel during the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours. "We are literally out of room," said Sister Catherine Marie.
The Montreal summit aims to establish a positive environment for promoting vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life in the United States and Canada, where, the report states, there are "more Catholics to serve with fewer ordained ministers to serve them."
The working document for the congress says that the shortage of Church vocations "remains evident in the places and spaces waiting for candidates to the priesthood and to consecrated life." The document adds: "Veritably, no diocese and no religious community and no secular institute in North America has more candidates than can be comfortably accommodated or hospitably welcomed."
The Nashville Dominicans may be an exception to that rule, but they are hardly the only one. A recent study by the Catholic Research Center in Burke, Virginia, finds considerable good news on the vocations front. It lists 25 new religious communities that are growing rapidly and more than 100 growing communities that are awaiting Church approval.
Orders and communities where postulants keep knocking on the door include the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, which is building a seminary in Denton, Nebraska; the Legionaries of Christ, whose US novitiate is in Cheshire, Connecticut; the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and the Sisters of St Francis of Alton, Illinois.
Referring to the working document, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, told the Register that he found the statement about accommodations "confusing, oddly worded and ambiguous." The Archbishop pointed to a number of seminaries that are "crowded," including Mount St Mary«s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which recently had to build a new wing; the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio; and Mount Angel Seminary in St Benedict, Oregon.
These are the institutions where Archbishop Curtiss sends men studying for the priesthood in Omaha. "I'm ordaining eight this year," he said. "I can't say there's a shortage." His archdiocese has 214,000 Catholics.
Like others interviewed by the Register, Archbishop Curtiss said that young men and women respond to a vocation when they are confident they can serve in a diocese or community that is "solid and with the Church."
Other dioceses that are doing well with priestly vocations include Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; Peoria, Illinois; Fall River, Massachusetts; Arlington, Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Charlotte, North Carolina; Lansing, Michigan; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Rockford, Illinois. But the working document makes no mention of them.
Father Raymond Lafontaine, the Canadian co-chairman of the vocations congress, defended the statement about accommodations by saying it is meant to paint a generalised picture of the vocations problem. "There are very few, if any, that are actively turning away large numbers of people, even those that are bursting at the seams," he said. "It was an attempt to express the fact that a lot of our communities are in need of new members."
"The Lord sends people to places that are healthy," said Father Glenn Sudano, community servant of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. In a reference to the statement about accommodations, he asked, "Can candidates be accommodated in terms of the faith? When they're not accommodating young people with the truth, there are empty novitiates."
Michael Wick, chief operating officer for the Institute on Religious Life in Chicago, pointed out that it is generally the more orthodox communities that are attracting more candidates. "Those who are with the Church and embrace Pope John Paul's vision of the Church and wish to be part of the new evangelisation, are experiencing significant growth," he said.
But Father Sudano cautioned: "A conservative community that is orthodox is not guaranteed recruits. ... If you're living a countercultural life that's authentic and fulfilling an evident need in society and the Church, there's a better chance you«ll make it."
Archbishop Curtiss will be participating in the congress and warned that its agenda and its management of the issues are important. "If the congress supports the priesthood and the consecrated life as defined by the Church, it will be worthwhile," he said. "If you've got people fussing over the ordination of women, that's not very encouraging."