Bishop Myers of Peoria (USA) has given a practical answer to the "priestless parishes" proposals. He has gone out and got vocations: by means of prayer, stating orthodox teaching and ensuring sound seminary training.
The Church in Australia needs to learn from such success stories if it is to "re-priest" itself during the next century. The central aim should be to supply priests, not to dispense with them as is obviously being attempted on the plea of "no vocations."
By doing precisely what every Catholic bishop is supposed to do, Bishop John Joseph Myers has is relative success, it is because there is attracted increasing attention from friends and foes alike during the six years since he was appointed as Bishop of Peoria, Illinois, in 1987. The most noteworthy aspect of his episcopate to date has been a reversal within his diocese of what has otherwise been a continuing decline in priestly vocations throughout the United States.
Thanks to his successful seminarian program, Peoria's Bishop expects to have "re-priested" his diocese by 1995. In the period from 1990-1992, for example, Peoria, which has just over 230,000 Catholics, ordained 33 men to the priesthood - one more than the neighbouring Archdiocese of Chicago, which has ten times more Catholics. Los Angeles, which has 3 million Catholics, ordained only four more than Peoria during the same period.
Why does such a relatively small diocese have so many vocations?
From the outset, the Bishop has made no apologies for even the Catholic Church's most 'difficult' teachings. And with three strongly-worded pastoral documents - one on abortion, another on the Eucharist, and the most recent on catechetics - he has made clear his total identity with the Papacy.
In his latest pastoral, "To Reach Full Knowledge of the Truth", issued in late January 1993, the Bishop insists on a content-based catechetics and calls for the promotion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, greater emphasis on the spiritual life, an end to dissent within the catechetical establishment and a religion curriculum which will include standardised testing.
Lawrence Young, a sociologist at Brigham Young University and co-author of a forthcoming book Full Pews and Empty Altars, is quoted in Catholic World Report (April 1993) as identifying a national trend among seminary applicants that favours Myers and bishops of a similar cast.
"It seems that those who are most willing to serve and make a commitment to the clergy have a traditional view of the Church," says Young, a Mormon who conducted a major study on the Catholic priesthood in the early 1980s. "When there is relative success, it is because there is a dynamic, energetic effort being given to formation."
Bishop Myers and his diocesan vocations director Fr Steven Rohlfs follow just this approach in Peoria diocese, which now has an aggregate of 59 seminarians (1993) studying at several large U.S. seminaries well-known for their orthodoxy, e.g., St Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia and Mount St Mary's in Maryland. Several other smaller U.S. dioceses - such as Lincoln, Nebraska, and Arlington, Virginia - have followed similar policies with similar successes.
Bishop Myers attributes the results in Peoria to "grace" and to a refusal on his part to soften the Church's celibacy requirement: "I found that rather than caving in to the culture, holding the ideal high gets young people's attention. I see among the religious communities that those who have maintained the highest expectations and demand the most have more vocations. With our seminarians, we just don't pull punches. We expect them to be chaste, we expect them to love the Church, and we have built the program around love for- a personal relationship with - Jesus Christ, especially in the sacraments, love for the Blessed Mother and devotion to the Blessed Mother, and love for the Church, especially the Holy Father and bishops".
A major feature of the diocesan drive for vocations involves "Emmaus Days", which draw each year about 125 teenage students. According to Fr Rohlfs, "We tell them we're looking for men to follow Christ in the ministerial priesthood. We start by teaching them to pray, because there's no hope of a vocation blooming if they don't take prayer seriously." The Bishop himself sets an example, beginning his 15-hour day in his chapel at 6am with 90 minutes before the Blessed Sacrament, reading, reflecting and praying the Divine Office.
Since coming to Peoria, Bishop Myers has relocated one-fourth of his priests, shifted Newman Centre chaplains and overhauled diocesan religious education, whose directors resigned after an outside consultant from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, wrote a critique of the program which stated that it had been "gutted" of "the most salient features of vibrant Catholicism." The Bishop has also requested (but not insisted) that diocesan teachers sign statement-of-belief forms designed to prevent scandal or forestall advocacy of positions contrary to Church teaching.
In response to allegations that Peoria's seminarians are of lesser quality - 'rejects' from other more 'selective' dioceses - Bishop Myers invites critics to see his "fine young men" for themselves and remarks: "There are some vocation offices that seem to have a litmus test which goes something like this. If they ask a young man, 'Well, what do you think about ordaining women into the priesthood?' and if the young man says, 'Well, I agree with the Pope and the bishops,' he is not eligible for admission into the seminarian program there. Now, we do take people who are turned down for that reason, because we support the Holy Father and the bishops."
It is clear that efforts to increase numbers significantly at Australia's larger seminaries have uniformly failed. And while stop-gap measures may be necessary to ensure that all Catholics have access to regular Mass and Holy Communion into the foreseeable future, it is vital that those responsible have a long hard look at how Australia's larger seminaries are currently operated and at how the image of the priesthood is projected to young, potential recruits.
It is this writer's view that apart from the usual impact of secularism and materialism, there are controllable factors within the Church which continue to negate the drawing power of the priesthood. The situation today is the product of a "response" shortage rather than a vocation shortage.
Australia could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of Peoria's book if it is to be serious about "re-priesting" itself.