Late last year, as a response to the Vatican communication of March 15, 1994, regarding female altar servers, the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, issued a memorandum under the signature of the Chancellor to all of its priests. The memorandum instructed that the tradition of boys only serving on the altar would remain unchanged for regular Masses throughout the diocese but that females would be admitted to the role of altar server in specified situations: nursing homes, retreat houses, chapels of convents, home Masses, campus liturgies in colleges - and a few others.
The memorandum explained:
"One of the top priorities of the Diocese of Arlington is to identify and nurture potential vocations to the priesthood, and it is a special gift of God that our corps of diocesan priests has grown over 50% in the past decade.
"One of the best expressions - and reinforcements - of an early inclination to the priesthood is often found in a young boy's voluntary offer to assist the priest at the altar, where the possibility of a role model scenario is clearly present. Perhaps that might explain why over 85% of our priests formerly were altar servers."
Such a statistic - a 50% growth in priestly numbers in just a decade - runs radically counter to general trends in the U.S., Australia, and most of the Western world. The general slide in numbers of priestly vocations, the empty seminaries and a steadily ageing priesthood have given rise to calls for more lay pastoral ministers and the rationalisation of parish structures.
The obvious question to be asked is why, against all the odds, the Arlington Diocese should be faring so well in the 1990s? If one Gould pinpoint the factors at work, would these apply elsewhere with equal success? It was with this in mind that AD2000 made contact with the Arlington Diocese's Director of Vocations, Fr James R. Gould. He provided the following picture, along with a number of possible explanations for the relative success achieved.
This year, said Fr Gould, the Arlington Diocese (with a population of 271,000, or about a quarter of Melbourne's size) has 43 seminarians of the "collegiate and theologate levels of formation" with an average age of 26. It is hoped to have 28 men ordained in the next three years to replace a possible loss of five priests, lost either due to death, defection, or retirement.
The average age of the priests of the diocese is 42. There are 61 parishes, 17 of them staffed by various religious order priests. Of all the order priests in the 17 parishes only seven are under the age of 50, the rest ranging from 65-70 years of age.
Arlington's Catholic population is due to double early into the next century, so that despite its exceptional number of seminarians - the equivalent of about 160 for, say, Melbourne - the anticipated ordinations will just meet the needs of the faithful for the near future.
During the period 1994-95 nine men were accepted for seminary training with a possible ten additional men expected for the Fall of 1995. According to Fr Gould, the attributes for any success may be included among the following.
- The Diocese of Arlington is "blessed" with the presence of a Poor Clare Monastery where the sisters concentrate on offering prayers for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. They are a highly valued part of the diocese.
- The active support of Bishop John Keating (who has been in Arlington since 1983), as well as of the diocese's priests and religious, has been a great help through their word and example.
- The diocese seeks out ten new priesthood candidates each year, rather than ten percent increases. "Ten Men," says Fr Gould, is a concrete goal in which every priest plays a part.
- The theme of two priestly or (male/female) religious vocations from each parish in the next two years is being stressed. "The Catholics in the pews need to be encouraged to ask their own to stand up and serve as priests and religious".
- Fr Gould travels to Arlington's parishes to speak on vocations at all Sunday Masses. The benefit of this, as Fr Gould puts it, is that the parish priest, or his assistant, gets a weekend off and the Director of vocations; gets a chance "to look into the eyes of the parishioners and talk on vocations". Fr Gould admits that he prefers to travel to the parishes, schools. colleges, scout retreats, high schools, Knights of Columbus Councils, and military bases rather than become involved in "paper projects."
- Arlington sends its candidates for the priesthood to three seminaries with "excellent reputations" - St Charles Seminary, in Philadelphia, Mt St Mary's Seminary, in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and the North American College, Rome.
- The theme for the Vocations Office, says Fr Gould, is that, "We are looking for men of prayer who can preach with courage, teach with clarity, and serve with charity."
- The Arlington Office of Vocations does not belong "either philosophically or materially" to any national vocation organisations.
- There is no vocation team involved with the Arlington Office of Vocations since, as Fr Gould observes, teams tend to be "a bureaucratic burden with all sorts of interesting agendas which cost great amounts of money. Simplicity is a virtue for Vocation Directors."
- The Vocation Director makes personal visits to the families of the candidates during the application process as well as during the time of formation. "This helps the parents to understand the basic formation program as well as play a role in formation of their son's vocation."
Along with the U.S. dioceses of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Peoria, Illinois, Arlington demonstrates that today's Church in the U.S. (and Australia) need not resign itself to a future of 'priestless parishes.' And if prudential, common-sense measures need to be taken to alleviate the immediate impact of a shortfall in priests, the lessons to be learned from the successes of these U.S. dioceses need to be carefully considered if Australia is to take a leaf out of their book.