Our Catholic future and the war of attrition: an object lesson

It is interesting to compare dioceses for the numbers of their vocations to the priesthood.  Some swanky and tony dioceses have few.  Some fly-over dioceses have many.  What are they doing differently?  Which are the differentiating factors?  Is it something in the water?  Is it something in the air?  Are some dioceses just lucky?

I don’t think so.

I read something depressing at Rorate about the state of vocations to the priesthood in Ireland.

The website of the Irish Bishops’ Catholic Conference says that there are 12 – twelve – men to start their studies for the priesthood at Saint Patrick’s College Maynooth, the National Seminary for Ireland.

There are 26 dioceses in Ireland.  The starting number is nearly never the final number because of attrition.

But, gosh, what young man’s eye wouldn’t be caught by this image, used by the Diocese of Derry (I’m not making this up):

I’m moved.

We are in a race, a kind of war of attrition.

Will we as a Church revitalize our Catholic identity before our ranks are devastated to the point that we will lose even what we have left?

The Lord promised that Hell would not in the end prevail against the Church.

He did not promise that Hell would not prevail in Ireland.

Or the United States.

Or your diocese or town.

Think of the mighty ancient Churches of North Africa.

All gone.

The lesson of Ireland should remind us to be grateful for God’s gifts where we are.

We should also be reminded that our Church is guided by grace and by elbow grease.

We need a “Marshall Plan” to rebuild our Catholic identity.  Our liturgical worship of God is at the core of any plan to rebuild any aspect of our Church.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. norancor says:

    This is why SC was first. But how we think is as important as what we do. Thinking leads to believing, and returning to the proven surety of scholasticism and rejecting, as impractical, the nebulous style of post-conciliar theology is equally important. I say this because even if you re-imposed the 1962 missal on the Church, you would still have the theology problem that goes hand-in-hand with the liturgical problem. My two cents…

  2. norancor says:

    I meant that more as how we think and believe leads to how we live…. not clear on that.

  3. LisaP. says:

    Is it possible for us to be saved by missionary priests? Or is that kind of poaching?

  4. Readers of the Southern Orders blog know that Fr. Allan McDonald is about as serious as it gets about exemplary “Say the Black, Do the Red” reform of the reform liturgy. In his post today on the Irish vocations crisis, he quotes from a 2003 article in the Savannah diocesan newspaper about the flood of vocations during the 1990s from the parish in Augusta (GA) where Fr. McDonald was pastor. Perhaps the story is worth a longer than usual extract:

    Vocation Focus—Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Augusta
    Many are asking “what the heck is in the Holy Water at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Augusta?” The reason for the question concerns the numerous vocations that have come from this parish since the early 1980’s. . . . . .

    The 1990’s brought a flood of priestly ordinations and new candidates for the priesthood and religious life. Fr. Timothy McKeown a parishioner was ordained. In the ninety’s Fr. Richard Hart entered the seminary. He was ordained in 2001. As well, Daniel Firmin, Mark Van Alstine, and Aaron Killips all entered the seminary. God willing they will be ordained priests for our diocese within the next few years.

    This past year, another Most Holy Trinity parishioner, Dr. John Markham was ordained a transitional deacon at Most Holy Trinity. God willing he will be ordained a priest next June. . . .

    Apart from Jonathan Bingham who recently joined the Dominicans, another former Most Holy Trinity parishioner, Fr. Ronald Schmidt ordained a Jesuit Priest in June returned to celebrate a “first Mass” at Most Holy Trinity. He was also a former choir member. Another Most Holy Trinity parishioner, Aaron Pidell made his first solemn vows as a Jesuit on August 15th in Louisiana. . . . .

    Certainly the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and yes perhaps something that is in the Holy Water has inspired all these vocations. Father McDonald stated that if every parish in the Diocese and throughout the world pro-actively encouraged vocations through prayer and invitation, the vocations’ shortage would become a vocations’ glut. He also believes that a strong parish faith life combined with solemn Liturgies done by the book and with flare contributes to the awareness of the importance of vocations and the need for serious minded and mature candidates. Many of Most Holy Trinity’s vocations were also long time altar servers, serving well after high school.

  5. The Sicilian Woman says:

    Our diocese is in what you could most definitely consider an attractive, “swanky” area. We have about 100 parishes, and 5 incoming seminarians from last year. The number of incoming seminarians has been the same or worse in recent years. If you can figure out the state where I live, you’d know that Hell will prevail here first. In fact, it looks as though it already is.

  6. Supertradmum says:

    LisaP, Missionaries from where? In every country in the world, there is a priest shortage for the numbers of Catholics. Africa has growing seminaries, but the priests are needed there. All of the European countries have a priest shortage and closing parishes. There is a priest shortage in many Latin American countries.

    No where from which to “poach”. As to a plan, it is this. One, every priest in America should get up at the pulpit several times a year and challenge directly the single men sitting in the pews to make decisions about their lives, and consider the priesthood. Two every bishop should have special Masses and invite young men from all over the dioceses to come and listen to a vocation talk . Three, confessors for single men should challenge them in the confessional to make a decision for Christ-many have been called and not returned the call. Four, parents should encourage their boys from early on to go to Mass, say the rosary, dedicate themselves to Mary, and love the Church. Five, parents need to be generous to life and give God their best, not holding back or discouraging vocations for the sake of the family name or business. Six, priests should decide to have ONLY altar boys and altar boy clubs. Seven, once a month, the parishes should organize all night adoration for men only, having a married man bring a single man along. Eight, rosary novenas in parishes for vocations. Nine, encouraging single men to volunteer to work with youth. All the parishes I have been in have zero single men volunteering-and many married men volunteering. Why are the singles? Ten, make all the single men in the parish read daily Father Z’s blog.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    PS Eleven, priests need to stop accepting contraception in their parishioners. No kids, no vocations. A sermon on this now and then might hit home.

  8. LisaP. says:


    I was afraid of that.

  9. Glen M says:

    In Ann Arbor Michigan, one parish alone has twenty two seminarians.


    I’m at a loss to explain why the national bishop conferences can’t figure out basic cause and effect. Some people have said it’s because they don’t want to admit they were wrong. Their entire ministry has revolved around the ‘spirit of Vatican II’ the New Pentecost and to correct their interpretations now would be to admit failure. Pride is a horrible sin.

  10. nykash says:

    The issue of ‘Catholic identity’ – or lack thereof today – was the subject of a homily this week. Relayed by my wife, as I was tied up with clients, our pastor described the growth of a mega-church north of Detroit, where most of the attendee’s are fallen away Catholics. But for the grace of God, there go I. Over the past few years, I’ve gone from being lukewarm at best to attending EF mass whenever possible, daily rosary, among other things. What did it for me was a priest asking “Whom do you serve?” That question was the spark that lead to other questions, a love for tradition, and the saints. Keep in mind I still feel like I stumbled in off the street.

    Back to Catholic identity: looking at a typical NO mass, I see a lot of things that point to the same weak catechesis I received. What do we need to fix it? Prayer, as we can’t do anything good on our own. Pray, in particular, for our bishops and priests. With leadership and strength, that which is seemingly held by a minority in the Church (mostly in the West – but perhaps not) can be universal. At that point we become a force to recon with!

  11. The Sicilian Woman says:

    Supertradmum, I’d expand your comment, “Four, parents should encourage…” to include that parents need to step up their roles as their children’s primary religious educators. I dare say that most parents, including my own, leave (or have left) religious education in the hands of CCD and/or schools which identify themselves as “Catholic,” which, as most of us know here, is often a misnomer.

    On top of having many fewer children born into families who identify themselves as “Catholic”, the few children that are born experience the Faith for only an hour each week at Sunday Mass, if they even attend weekly. They also need to learn by example that Holy Days of Obligation are just that; they’re not Holy Days of Option. Take the kids to Adoration. Take them to Mass on some feast days and let them learn about saints who gave everything they had. Plus, if the parents have their children attend a “Catholic” school, they really need to investigate the curriculum to see if it’s small (c) “catholic” or a capital C “Catholic” school. The bottom line is, parents need to take the lead in their children’s religious formation. While there are no guarantees that any child raised in a healthy Catholic household will remain in the Faith and not fall to the powerful secular culture, or that any child will become a priest or religious, given the failures of the catechism taught for the past 40+ years and the destruction of the family unit in the same time frame (no coincidence), I think it’s obvious that leading by example in the home is likely the parents’ best contribution towards rebuilding the Church.

    My pastor has definitely mentioned, from the pulpit and in the bulletin, that priests and religious come from healthy marriages, which preclude contraception. He’s mentioned the ills of contraception many times. He’s one of several children, including a child born with Down Syndrome, born into a devout Catholic family. Another devout family in our diocese is likely to give the Church two priests. One is already a priest, while another is in discernment.

  12. dominic1955 says:

    It seems rather obvious to us, orthodoxy and orthopraxis makes for vocations. Our FSSP parish has more seminarians, clerics, and religious sisters/brothers right now than any other parish in town and its, of course, one of the smaller parishes. All of the diocesan parishes cannot even hold a candle to us, even those that are 10X or better larger than us. You’d think some of those parishes with so many people would have at least that many in religion just on account of the vast numbers but no. I think its obvious why not, people have abandoned the Faith by and large even if bodies keep showing up at buildings labeled Catholic churches on Sunday morning.

    Lex Orandi, lex credendi. Our churches are modern monstronsities that look utterly effeminate. The music is abhorent. The preaching and teaching is CatholicismLite at best. Who wants to give up familial comforts to “pastor” this kind of Church? Well, either guys who have seen beyond and want to restore the Church to its former glory or touchy-feely effeminate types who like getting walked all over and affirm people. The poster above is an example of the type of thing aimed at the latter. The Diocese of Derby looks like its looking for psychotherapists in pastel sweater vests.

  13. mrsmontoya says:

    Father, I work at a Catholic Retreat Center where several high schools come for retreats. I have created a “Vocations Corner” next to the display case for our center’s flyers. I have a small display case where I keep brochures from our seminary, as well as material from monasteries and religious orders across the US. I have never seen anyone take anything, but I have had to refill the seminary brochures. And I am happy to say that our seminary is full. :)

    This is something that any parish could do as well, in the vestibule.

  14. St. Epaphras says:

    In addition to all said above, there’s the importance of fathers and spiritual fathers being very strong and not backing down before the enemy’s attacks. Here I’m mostly thinking of priests. Boys are looking for heroes (why do they go to all those movies?) and the parish priest is in a position no one else is in. If Father is totally sold out to God and fighting the good fight of faith and his whole purpose for living is to please God and help save as many souls as he possibly can, even if he hides his prayers and penances as much as possible the fruit of it will show and young men will take note. I mean, if Father is really a spiritual warrior and willing to give any sacrifice for God and souls, that may get ahold of some young men in the parish and they’ll realize there’s a war on and this isn’t just about being nice and making people so very happy and having a nice, cushy job and retirement some day but it’s a life and death battle for eternal souls in which the priests of Jesus Christ have a definite part to play — and if they don’t…

    I think of St. Paul’s two letters to his spiritual son Timothy. He tells T. over and over to be strong, to not let them walk on you, to reprove, rebuke, exhort, etc. In other words, to be a man. Today he might say don’t let the bossy women run you and don’t let the bossy nun run the parish either.

    So everything about the parish priest is going to influence the boys and young men one way or the other. A holy and courageous priest is a strong magnet for vocations. Please, everybody, step up the prayers and sacrifices for our priests and bishops.

  15. Johnno says:

    I was once seriously considering becoming a priest. Went to the seminary visits, joined a vocations discernment house and all that. However I don’t feel I am going in that direction anymore. Part of me wonders if it’s cowardice on my part. I’m not a ‘social’ person, and the idea of looking after a parish and having to be overly friendly with others has never been my thing. I’m very introverted, though I felt at home talking amongst other young men who were all faithful catholcis discerning alongside me. It was like something missing from my life as outside of them there was no one who i could talk to about my faith and serious topics of religion on a… well.. more knowledgeable basis.

    However I also feel there’s no point putting myself on the line if the bishops and Church as a whole do not have my back. I see stories like what happened to that priest who denied communion to the lesbian only to be thrown under the bus by his own archidiocese and bishop, I read about priests who try to offer the latin mass and atand up for proper morality betrayed by their own bishops, and I feel I could nto handle that. The attacks f teh press, of secularists, atheists etc. I can understand and am willing to face these foes. But to be put out to hang by the Church itself is discouraging. To be ordered by my superiors to not speak anymore about moral topics and not do the job Christ gave us would make the whole effort pointless. Why shold priests be sacrificed if the archidiocese as a whole is unwilling to face difficulties for the sake of retaining financial benefits and cordiously maintain relations with the enemy? Would I be able to hold to my vow of obedience?

    I don’t believe there’s any benefit to me becoming a priest only to be handcuffed and told not to rock the boat and not to speak on moral topics etc. I will just become bitter, and at worst, disobedient. I don’t have any hope for revitilization of the Church in the west, so long as the institutional, careerist catholics are in charge who would only rather maintain the status quo and compromise for as long as they can. I believe the Church int he West is in decline and is not coming back, except for when it completely disappears, only to be reestablished by missionary priests from foreign lands all over again just as it was at the time of the apostles.

    I think now that if I’m called to serve the Church in soem way, it’ll be as a layman who has some more freedoms to fight against secularism and in mthods not open to a priest who has his own responsibilities and his duties. In some events it may also be necessary to fight against some in the Church structure itself, something lay people can do better.

    Fulton J Sheen and other are increasingly more right in our world today. It is the time for the lay catholics to stand up and do what their priests are unable to, more so to defend and support their priests. This will be the lay participation that Vatican II intended. The Mass and the Sacrament’s are the priest’s. The affairs of teh world are that of the laymen, the ecclesia militans! It’s time for war and when the priests are depleated, the laymen will have to take up arms and fight. Perhaps this is where I’d best serve God. His will be done.

  16. lethargic says:

    That image looks like 4th-grade artwork … what healthy young adult man would be attracted by that? It’s almost as though they’re trying to do what they’re doing … ?

  17. Cathy says:

    Lisa P., our traditionally liberal parish has had an influx of priests from foreign countries, this has been not only a wonderful influence on the parish, but, also has been an impetus for vocations in our parish. We have been very blessed with faithful, grateful men with a singular goal – the salvation of souls. We have been greatly blessed by Our Lord to have them with us.

  18. VexillaRegis says:

    Johnno! : I understand your hesitation and worries. (Even lay women do – to be a catholic these days is dangerous in many ways!) I just finished reading an astounding book called The Shadow of his wings by P.Gereon Goldman O F M. You can read about the author here: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=26957340 It’s deeply moving and captivating to see what he did go through to be an ordained priest during WWII.

    I highly recommend ALL OF YOU to read this book! It covers everything WDTPRS’ers are interested in, such as: vocations, TLM, languages, the power of prayer, spirituality, gregorian chant, history, filosophy and humour (despite Fr. Gereon being a german ;-) !)

    Please read!

  19. Imrahil says:

    Dear @VexillaRegis,

    on an aside, while it’s probably hard to get a German offended at anything about his nationality, probably saying that the Germans have no humour will do.

    Just kidding.

    Dear @Johnno, that’s probably why a priest doesn’t vow obedience… he promises what is called obedience but what is more properly canonical subordination. I think you wouldn’t have problems with obedience. What you perhaps would have problems with is that superiors can do a lot of things for making their inferiors do things they cannot order them to do… (additional duties, not getting an assignment one wants, to begin with). However, there is no point in itself fearing to be told not to speak about moral topics, for a superior cannot, simply cannot, validly order you not to do so.

    Still, speaking of moral topics is a highly prudential issue… nor so really a controversial issue either. People know the list of things the Church is against, and all the talk of the (English-language) liberals will not make them think differently! (One good thing at least, and one the E.-l. liberals are quite furious about.) People also know and believe that abortion is intrinsically evil (and I was surprised that when I was once in a really unbiased discussion about the nature of the contraception ban, it did turn out as majority opinion that artificialities in the sexual act are a bad thing); that homosexuality is contranatural; that marriage is between man and woman; that if God does order a thing He must be obeyed at all costs; that God exists. [Only for the latter thing, that God exists, while they do believe it, oftentimes they do not believe it firmly, and often have a “or perhaps not” attached to it.]

    Indeed I even understand the ulterior thought that if they must sin, at least let them still pay their contributions. Where of course, this line of thinking runs short is that they do need 1. to hear that repeated once in a while, mainly to be strengthened in the faith that the Church has not given up yet and they need not bow down to modernity (for it is hard to fight alone without allies; the Church, on the other hand, very seldom conquers, but people join it with the surprising feeling that, what they wouldn’t have dreamt of in their wildest dreams, they actually are allowed to be free…), 2. to hear the natural reasonings behind the Church morals, at least to some degree, laid down to them, for they have caught up the not untrue idea that God, just in plain fact, has not by positive decree forbidden us things to spoil our fun.

    However, while I don’t know whether the Church in the West is in decline, allow me to be frank and I’ll say I think it’s futile to hope for a complete, or even only a wide-range, disappearance. Deserted altars are inhabited by demons, as Captain Jünger said, and Leave a village without priest and soon they will worship the beasts, as St. Johnmary said. Whatever is going to replace at large the Church-as-it-appears will be worse; and while I won’t preach determinism, it does say something that while mission in heathen lands has been led to all Christendom of today, and often quite quickly (see India), mission in de-Christianized lands has practically never on a large scale been successful at all. (England is the interesting counterexample for not to replace “Christian” by even “Catholic” in the preceding sentence.)

    A help out of our situation can only come by the Church as it is know itself; it should be helpful that especially in the places of authority (but also even in the “liberals”), the people are of good will. We have no special moral problem*; we have an intellectual problem. [* That is at least we do not get so far as to have one. It is quite possible that some, were it really proven to them that Christ demands such and such which they hitherto had believed he does not demand, would decide rather to abandon Christ. But we do not get so far.]

    And St. Thomas teaches us that the clergy is set up to fight ignorance (S. th. III 65 I answ. last paragraph), and maybe that’s more true even today that we may think of.

    Just some thoughts.

  20. LisaP. says:

    I’ll take it — inspiration and leadership for our men here.

  21. LisaP. says:


    That’s an interesting point of view, and I think you’ve got something there.
    In the passage where Jesus’ followers turn away from him, I find it interesting that the gospel says they understood, then turned away because the teaching was too hard. They didn’t turn away because they didn’t understand.

  22. Supertradmum says:

    Imrahil, Even though diocesan priests do not make a vow of obedience, they owe obedience to their bishops and this comes up in the personality assessments before the men are accepted as seminarians. There is a discussion on obedience with the psychologist, as there are times when the priests must act in obedience, despite not being under vows.

    As to not understanding, whose fault is that? For years, all of us have heard dumbed down homilies and little catechesis from the pulpits and none in the schools. The Aspostolic Nuncio had to intervene in Ireland and clean up the liberalism and heresies taught at Maynooth. The seminary is still not clear of its horrible reputation. Ask anyone here and in Ireland.

    And, as to morals, we have natural law, which is not Catholic, but human-the law written on our hearts because we are human. Those who have clouded intellects or misshapenness in consciences can still appeal in themselves to what is basic to humanity regarding morals and abortion or contraception would be obviously wrong. We cannot let people escape from culpability. although it may be lessened under certain circumstances.

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