I know that the majority of those reading this are, for many good reasons, not thinking of becoming priests. They are already married; would not be happy without a spouse, children and grandchildren; are too old, turned off on the church and its leadership because of recent scandals; reject too many of the church’s teachings. They want the church to ordain women and see the church today as irrelevant.
But all of us have a stake in the continuance of the priesthood—though not necessarily as it is presently constituted—and it is in the common interest to discuss the role of the priest in the community and ask how good young men can be encouraged to take on this servant-leadership role.
I hold out the possibility of great changes because I have experienced them. Perhaps the time has come for the Spirit to leave His/Her nest again and stir things up.
When I entered the Society of Jesus at Saint Andrew on Hudson the summer of 1957, I was a 24-year-old Fordham graduate just out of the U. S. Army in Germany. I had been attracted by the Jesuits who taught me at St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia and at Fordham and who had been writing to me about my future for years. And I was struck by the America editor, Robert C. Hartnett, S.J., who had the courage to criticize the red-baiting Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. I had consulted family friend Fr. Gerard Sloyan, a well known theologian, on the choice between the Jesuits and the diocesan clergy, and he asked me how important it was for me to have the support of a religious community, as against living in a rectory with only two or three other priests. That settled it.
When I entered the New York Province (one of 10 provinces) at Saint Andrew on Hudson, there were 30 novices in my year and another 30 in second. Vocations were so high in those years that New York had just built a new philosophy seminary at Shrub Oak in Westchester County with a double-sized sanctuary because we would need all that floor space for the men to prostrate themselves during the rite of ordination.
Of the 60 novices nearly all were 17, right out of high school, with only about a half dozen having been to college or in the service. As much as I loved my younger brothers, I was very glad I had “seen the world,” including a year in Paris, before locking myself away in the beautiful Hudson River countryside.
Then half-way through, the novice master announced that the new Pope John XXIII had called the Second Vatican Council to "update" the church. The world had changed, the church had been left behind and had to catch up.
By the time I was ordained in 1967 the church had changed dramatically, and we had prepared for it during theology at Woodstock College by reading the Council documents, being briefed by men who had been there, and by experimenting with the liturgy to find new and better ways of making Christ present to the congregation. We were closing seminaries in the woods and moving to both Catholic and secular university campuses, and Jesuit faculty began wearing shirts, coats and ties to break down artificial clerical barriers between priests and people.
This summer 31 young men joined the Jesuits—nationwide. New York, New England, and Maryland Provinces have consolidated. Three of the 31 are from New York. Obviously the difference between the attraction to the Jesuit life between 1957 and 2010 is startling. But there are other remarkable differences.
In the 1950s the priest was a high status member of the community. Yes, Father. Clericalism, often in a generous way, was running high. Father wearing his Roman collar in a restaurant might have his bill picked up by a good Catholic at another table. A collar-wearing priest waiting in line at a theater might be moved to the head of the line. Most of that has faded.
A different breed is moving in. Of the 31 Jesuits entering the average age is 25.8. Seven are over 30, only two are 18. Twenty-our have been to Jesuit high schools or colleges. Twenty-three have already done some sort of ministry, either in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or other work with the poor. Eighteen have traveled to other countries, some spending several years abroad, like the one who spent two years teaching English in rural China. Nearly all are athletes: they run, bike and swim. There’s one from Harvard Law School and another who has played polo. Another graduated from Boston College in 2008, spent a year as an Oregon Province novice, left the Society and coached high school cross-country, returned to Boston College for graduate studies and rejoined the Society. He also plays the Irish fiddle.
If history repeats itself, about half of these 31 men will leave. We shall see. But their resumes suggest we are attracting good men. What happens to them will be determined by how Society of Jesus and church at large respond to the many who are leaving not just the religious life but the faith itself because of: their refusal to accept Humanae Vitae on birth control; women’s reaction to the block against their ordination; unprepared sermons that ignore the people’s needs; and perhaps the silence of the church on the critical issues of our time. These issues might include the unjust distribution of wealth, unjustified wars, the search for meaning during a public intellectual dialogue dominated by the “new atheists” or fundamentalists still at war with modern Biblical criticism and the theory of evolution.
Why would anyone want to be a priest at a time like this?
1. He’s needed. Jesus looked over the crowds and mourned that they were “sheep without a shepherd.”
2. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn, through service, what love really is, to give and receive it, and make friends for life who may never substitute for the family one might otherwise have raised but will bring overwhelming happiness.
3. In certain parts of the world, as Jesuits and Archbishop Romero learned in El Salvador, to be a good priest is to face death. No one should join the religious life in order to become a martyr, but he should know of the risks. To stick one’s neck out in Afghanistan, Mexico, or New York—any place where the Gospel threatens the status quo—is to risk your livelihood, your reputation, or your life. All the more reason to be a priest.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.