Priestly vocations: the key role of bishops

Priestly vocations: the key role of bishops

John Mallon

This is a shortened version of an article first published in 'Inside the Vatican' magazine and is reprinted with the permission of the author who is a Contributing Editor to 'Inside the Vatican'. John Mallon may be reached at He has a regular column on the website while an archive of his work appears on

In the mid 1990s, I attended a clergy meeting in the diocese where I was employed as the newspaper editor. The meeting was to discuss ideas to increase vocations to the priesthood, because the diocese was facing a crisis.

Predictably, the discussion was going nowhere until the retired archbishop raised his hand, stood up and said, "Why don't we study those dioceses which are attracting vocations, like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Arlington, Virginia, and see what they are doing and what we can learn from that."

I smiled to myself, eager to see the response to his suggestion, because I knew that the reason those dioceses were attracting so many vocations would be utterly unacceptable to this group of priests. Predictably, the priests just looked at each other and said nothing. No one responded to the archbishop's suggestion.

The answer was obvious. I may have even taken the retired archbishop aside and told him, but I suspect he already knew. The plain simple answer was that the bishops of those dioceses, Bishops Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln and the late John Keating of Arlington, were both explicitly, vocally and publicly committed to orthodoxy in Catholic teaching and practice. Meanwhile, the dominant priests of this diocese were known for being firmly committed to dissent.

Leaving aside the question of whether the Lord is going to bless dissent with abundant vocations is the other more practical question of what young man, firmly committed to and in love with the Lord and His Church, is going to seek ordination in a diocese where the clergy has a reputation for chewing up orthodox people, both clerical and lay, and spitting them out? Martyrdom is sometimes inevitable, but what sane person seeks it?

There is no reason a young man wanting to serve the Lord should be expected to put up with the nonsense of running the gauntlet of dissent and homosexuality in the seminary only then to face constant vexation and opposition from his fellow clergy once ordained.

The young man attracted to priesthood today is not the "young Turk" of the 1960s who enshrines rebellion and views the Church as part of the "establishment."

No, today's youthful instinct to be countercultural takes the form of orthodoxy, and sees the mission of the Church as an uphill battle in a hostile world. Youth is attracted to challenge and orthodox Catholicism offers it.

John Paul II

Their youthful rebellion is engaged in the battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. They never knew a time when abortion was not legal and they never knew another Pope besides John Paul II. The mainstream media was baffled to see the seminarians from the North American College in Rome cheering wildly at the election of Benedict XVI, who is just as much their hero and champion as John Paul II.

There is a solidarity among the orthodox youth, which John Paul II wisely and shrewdly nurtured as the future of the Church in his World Youth Days and his plain, simple love for them, which was direct and unmediated.

This worldwide community of youth nurtured by John Paul II is acutely well aware of what is going on in the Church and in dioceses around the world. When a bishop makes a strong statement in defence of orthodoxy, those young people inclined to religious vocations talk among themselves as to whether his diocese might be a good one in which to seek ordination.

If that same bishop does something perceived as compromising the faith, their interest is withdrawn. A bishop who tolerates dissent is not even considered. A bishop willing to excommunicate pro-abortion Catholic politicians is likely to receive much interest from these young people. A bishop who waffles will not.

A diocese which punishes good, orthodox priests or lay professionals while coddling or protecting dissenters will not. A diocese which punishes whistle-blowers while protecting abusers and active homosexuals in the clergy will not. A diocese where the bishop is ostensibly orthodox in his words but where the chancery, departments and clergy are dominated or ruled by dissenters will not.

The extent of this orthodox youth underground is truly worldwide. I have encountered it in all my travels throughout North America and Europe. In St Peter's Square and in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna I have bumped into students I knew at Franciscan University of Steubenville. A constant topic of discussion among those considering ordination or religious life is which dioceses and bishops are "good" (i.e., orthodox).

It is also important that the seminary which a bishop uses is committed to solid Catholic formation and is free of harassment, either sexual or religious, and that the bishop monitors it closely.

There is no secret to attracting vocations. There are plenty of them out there. A bishop who tolerates dissent and ignores abuses will not attract them. A bishop who boldly stands up for Christ and His Church, and Church teachings, despite all costs and opposition, will attract them.

These young people are the future of the Church. Whether or not they are welcomed into their rightful place to which the Lord is calling them lies in the hands of each individual bishop.

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