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Catholic Crisis : Flock Runs Short of Shepherds

First of two parts. Next: How Los Angeles copes with the priesthood situation.

March 01, 1989|RUSSELL CHANDLER | Times Religion Writer

Some dioceses have their own innovations. In Fargo, N.D., for example, Father Valentine Gross has devised an aptitude and interest test to help junior and senior high school students decide who might "have a vocation." Other dioceses with large Latino or Asian populations concentrate on enlisting seminarians from these ethnic constituencies.

Some dioceses are finding it pays to advertise. In Chicago, the vocations office has been experimenting with radio spot announcements in Spanish to reach the Latino community.

The St. John Neumann College Seminary Residence in the Bronx, N.Y.--which arranges for men who are thinking about the priesthood to continue their studies at local universities or colleges while supplementing their training in seminary classes and in a religious environment--places ads in major publications like Reader's Digest, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

"It gets people thinking," explained O'Brien, the seminary rector, " 'Do I want to consider the possibility of the priesthood? If so, at least there's a way to go.' "

Candidates for the Roman Catholic priesthood must have a college degree or its equivalent and complete four years of graduate theological study at an approved Catholic seminary.

Vocations experts say the overall recruitment efforts are too little too late, and that it is a losing battle unless Rome changes its policies on who can be a priest.

Sociologist Hoge speculates that if priests were given the option to marry, the number of candidates would quadruple. In a massive study, he found that 16% of college-age Catholic men would be interested in the priesthood if it were not for the celibacy requirement.

"It would go up so high, that the church would have to institute quality standards. The church could be much more selective," Hoge said in an interview.

The Roman Catholic Church has decreed since the 4th Century that its priests must be celibate, basing the requirement on the fact that Jesus was unmarried, upon the words of the Apostle Paul that "an unmarried man can devote himself (fully) to the Lord's affairs" (First Corinthians 7:32) and upon church tradition.

The Code of Canon Law says that "clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and are therefore bound to celibacy . . . a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart . . . .(Canon 277.1)."

Recent polls have shown that about 55% of the priests and 60% of the U.S. Catholic laity favor optional celibacy for priests. During the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the late Cardinal Julius Dopfner called for the suspension of the laws of celibacy pending an extensive historical analysis of their origins, but the recommendation was turned down. The present Pope, John Paul II, is well known for his insistence on maintaining tradition in the matter.

Meeting at the Vatican with bishops from western Canada last November, the Pope suggested that "the ordained priesthood and the church's love and understanding of it are being tested, precisely so that what is essential may be strengthened, purified and renewed. . . ."

"If we are being brought to our knees, so to speak, by the need for more priests, is it not in order that we may understand with greater humility and love who the Lord of the harvest truly is?" he asked.

Sister Katarina Schuth OSF, coordinator of a Lilly Endowment-funded study, points to better programs of priestly formation since Vatican II and increasing involvement of lay people as ways the church is attempting to solve the leadership problem. By training the laity to take on some tasks, the clergy is freed to concentrate on sacramental duties, such as saying Mass, that require ordination.

Sister Katarina noted that there are currently about 4,000 nuns and lay people pursuing graduate degrees in theology in seminaries across the country. Twenty years ago, there were none, she said.

But increasing lay enrollment presents its own problems. Many seminaries are not yet equipped to handle lay students. The administrations and faculties at the institutions have not yet defined the program to be followed by these lay men and women. In some cases, students training for the priesthood desire a clear delineation between the educational training received by them and their lay classmates.

Further, priests are not held in the high esteem they once were, a fact that can sometimes be discouraging to the seminarian, Sister Katarina said. If no line is drawn between the curriculum followed by those training for the priesthood and that followed by lay students of theology, change in attitude toward priests is sometimes even more pronounced to seminarians, she said.

"Today a person must have a special spark within himself that draws him to the priesthood, because the outside support just isn't there," the sister said.

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