a Catholic priest is over sixty. In the next ten to fifteen years, the Church will lose half of its
active priests due to retirement or death. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops is
soliciting priests from all over the world, particularly Africa where there is a surplus, to come
to America and serve. There is a real possibility parishes will have to share their priest with
another parish and an even more real possibility that the practice of weekly Sunday Mass will
end, to be replaced by weekly prayer or communion services and Mass once a month.
A Church built around the sacraments could take on a very Protestant look and feel.
I grew up in a family where four of my uncles were Franciscan priests. Through them,
I came to know many other priests and nuns. My father was a member of the Serra Club.
He was dedicated to increasing priestly vocations and was friends with most of the priests in
the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Back then, San Francisco was almost 50% Catholic. When
you met someone, you asked what parish they were from; and their answer designated their
socio-economic standing, geographic neighborhood, and who their friends were. In every
parish you would find a young priest fresh out of the seminary, usually 25-27 years old. He
would work in the school, supervise alter servers, mentor the teen club, and be a touchstone
for young Catholics in the parish. He could relate to the community's youth. He understood
and he was someone to identify with. Those young priests were great recruitment posters
for other young men thinking of joining up; and their preaching and interactions were in touch
with Catholics, both young and old.
Today, my children live in a parish where no priest appears to be under fifty, and most
much older. At college they meet Catholic chaplains who have no idea what Facebook,
Twitter, or social networking is all about. They have little in common with today's college
student's needs or wants; and the Church is losing it's relevance to an entire generation of
There are new priests being ordained; however, they average in their mid-thirties. Many
are regressive and out of touch with the communities they serve. They disagree with the
majority of American Catholics on everything from abortion to birth control. They don't like
the idea of allowing women to be priests. They seem to be more in love with wearing a collar
than they are with meeting the average Catholic's post-internet, computer savvy, ethically-
Some Church critics are using the lack of priests as proof the Holy Spirit is not inspiring
new vocations until the Church cleans up its act. Others say the lack of priests shows how far
the American Catholic Church has moved from its roots and core message. A priest friend of
mine said the National Conference of Catholic Bishops more resembles an adjunct branch of
the Republican Party than an organization dedicated to the message of the Jewish carpenter.
I was once asked what I would do if my son wanted to become a priest. Offhand I replied
I would lock him up in his room until he came to his senses. I was wrong. In my life, I have
been blessed to know some of the finest priests and nuns. My uncles are among that group.
They dedicated their lives to living in a community of brothers committed to the ideals of
St. Francis. They owned nothing. They worked with the poor. They built schools and parishes.
One uncle bought three school buses and enough fuel for a year using Green Stamps solicited
from all over the country; effort well spent to serve his parish in Utah. Another, Harry (Philip
was his Franciscan name), was a tireless advocate for poor and working class San Franciscans.
He was also one of the kindest men I ever met. I got to know Father Floyd Lotito OFM, who
ran St. Anthony's Dining Room. Frs. John Hardin and Louis Vitali OFM moved me to serve
and to advocate for those who can't advocate for themselves. These humble men live their
sacred vows daily.
The list is long and the priests impressive who I have been affected by and who I admire.
Growing up as a rebellious adolescent (lasting into adulthood?), Tom Burns showed me how
to walk the walk of Christianity and not just talk the talk. My intellectual life was built and
nourished by more Franciscans including Francis Baur OFM, Kenan Osborne OFM, Michael
Guinan OFM, and Pierre Etchelecu OFM. Monsignor John O'Connor served as a moderating
voice and taught me not to be so black and white about everything. Joe Walsh, Brian Joyce,
Miles Riley, Bishop Francis Quinn, and other diocesan priests showed me what great pastors
and shepherds were like. Steve Privette S.J., Ed McFadden S.J., Jerry Wade S.J.,
Dick Cobb S.J., Bill Muller S.J., Tony Sauer S.J., and lots of Jesuits, taught me how to teach
and minister to students and their families.
The common thread for all these men was their understanding that the collar they wear
or the vows they take don't separate "them" from "us". Just the opposite is true. They live or
lived lives immersed in the communities they served. They were humans first, Christians
second, Catholics third, and clerics last. The current crop of priests seem to believe the order
should be reversed; and it's one of the reasons they're having such a difficulty attracting good
people to join their ranks.
But it goes deeper than that. There are at least two more reasons the Church lacks
priests: First, the Church is guilty of the sin of sexism (pronounced a sin by John Paul II).
Over half the Catholic population is denied the opportunity to serve as priests due to their
gender. There are no scriptural excuses as to why women can't be priests. Regressives cite
the fact that Jesus picked all men to be apostles as proof women need not apply; but nowhere
in the scriptures does Jesus assert the apostles were picked due to their gender. Following
that logic, all priests would have to be Jewish too. How do we know their religion wasn't
absolutely essential to be selected? And, by the way, the word used to describe God's spirit
hovering over the water in Genesis is female in gender. In spite of all this, the sin of sexism
is still dominant in the Roman Church. Possibly God, through Her Spirit, is trying to tell us
Second, by prohibiting married priests from serving, a huge supply has been eliminated.
The irony should not be lost on anyone that at the same time the Roman Church pushes a
celibate, non-married clergy; it is encouraging married Anglican priests to cross over, convert,
and become active Roman Catholic priests, wives and children welcome.
If my son wanted to be a priest in the manner of the amazing Franciscan, Jesuit, and
Diocesan priests I have been honored to know in my life, I would encourage him and hope he
could fill their shoes. I would be willing to pray for more vocations if I thought they would
produce the kinds of religious men and women I have been blessed to know all my life.
However, if my son wanted to become a priest like the current meager aspirants, more
attracted to the collar than the call, more concerned with the law than the Spirit, seeing
himself as separate from those he is supposed to serve, comfortable with a sexist Church,
more committed to rules rather than to Matthew 25, I would do my best to discourage him.
My life is a constant blessing because of all the religious folks that have joined with me.
For this I am truly grateful. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Buddhists have become one
in this larger Spirit. I am lucky to have met so many through whom I have encountered
Jesus, thus God. I worry that my children, or theirs, will be deprived of the richness and
witness I have experienced. It saddens me to think they won't have the priestly role models
to look up to or the living examples of lives well lived. The possibility that they won't have
loving, peaceful, inspirational women and men to guide them, and move them, and comfort
them when needs arise, that able loving men and women won't be rushing in to fill the gaps
in my children's lives when I am unexpectedly called away, the fact that they won't hear
inspired preaching and witness extraordinary faith of adults in their world dedicated to more
than just the latest consumer fad, leaves them with such a different take on the world than
I have had in my life. I believe in the Holy Spirit and She will continue to call men and women
to witness and to be involved in people everyday in a spirit of love. The only question is:
Can the Roman Church stay quiet long enough for Her to be heard? What do you think?
I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org