Every religious congregation and diocese in Ireland is feeling the effects of the decline in vocations. Parishioners must recognise that it is part of their own responsibility as a community of faith to encourage, to welcome and to work for and support vocations to the priesthood. The problem of vocations concerns the whole people of God.
Serious questions need to be asked about the depth and quality of faith in a country which cannot provide sufficient priests for the ministry of God's Word and Christ's sacraments.
Sometimes celibacy is regarded as the chief determinant to priestly vocations. Some lay people - and sometimes even clergy - ask for the ending of what they call "mandatory celibacy," so that the number of priests might be increased. Their concern is understandable. However, they are misguided in thinking that ending the discipline of celibacy would increase vocations and in supposing the Church will change its discipline.
Quite simply, the Church will not change its discipline. This position was reiterated by the Synod of Bishops in 1990: "The Synod does not wish to leave any doubts in the mind of anyone regarding the Church's firm will to maintain the law that demands perpetual and freely chosen celibacy for present and future candidates for priestly ordination in the Latin Rite."
The Synod went on to say that it is vital that the meaning and importance of celibacy be understood and appreciated by the whole Church. It is, therefore, regrettable that the issue continues to be regarded by some as if it were simply an interim discipline, likely to be changed by a future Council or Pope. While not questioning the sincerity of those who continue to raise the question, it can be, at best, a distraction from the urgent task of promoting priestly vocations and can even have a negative impact on that task.
It should not be forgotten that it is not only priests who are called to live a celibate life. The majority of Catholic celibates have always been and still are consecrated women. Furthermore, all unmarried men and women are required by the teaching of the Church to remain continent until marriage and to remain faithful to their spouses within marriage. Married persons, temporarily or permanently separated from their spouses, are also obliged to complete continence. Divorced persons, who remarry or who enter into new sexual relationships, sin against chastity and commit adultery. This is not just Church teaching. It is the teaching of Our Lord himself. Chastity is an obligation for all Christians, not just for priests.
It is clear that, if there is a crisis of chastity in society, there can be expected to be a crisis concerning priestly celibacy. If we want proof of a crisis of chastity in modern society, we have only to look around us at advertising billboards, newspapers, television soaps and cinema shows. Chastity is not just violated, it is often ridiculed, and any objection to unchaste images or comedy shows is dismissed as censorship, prudery or a return to the "Dark Ages."
In such a society, to practice and value chastity becomes more difficult. At the same time, it becomes more difficult to value celibacy and to support and encourage those who feel called to celibacy. For the same reasons, however, priestly celibacy has become more necessary than ever in today's world, as a witness to chastity for everyone and as a counter- witness to the eroticism pervading modern society. A great need for all followers of Christ nowadays is to work and to pray for a society more conducive to and more appreciative of chastity, and therefore more conducive to and more appreciative of celibacy for priests
Training in chastity is an essential part of Christian education for children and young people in today's world. Sound programs of education in sexuality and relationships in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the Holy See and by the bishops, should be welcomed and supported by parents.
Revival of faith
To stress the obligation of chastity is not some kind of sexual prudery. It is authentic respect for God's beautiful, precious and sacred gift of sexuality. It is an attempt to save sexuality from being degraded and debased.
The great need today is for a revival of faith. The crisis of vocations is fundamentally a crisis of faith. It can be overcome only by a great renewal of Christian life in all its aspects, and by a deeper immersion in God through prayer and the pursuit of holiness. The crisis of vocations is not a manpower problem, it is a problem of holiness - the holiness to which we are all called, and the holiness for which the priest is, by ordination, set apart and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This is an abridged version of a talk given by Cardinal Cahal Daly at the annual St Joseph's Young Priest Society pilgrimage to Knock, originally published in 'The Irish Catholic.' Cardinal Daly is the retired Archbishop of Dublin and former Primate of all Ireland.