Best practices for promoting priestly vocations

On June 16, there was a great article in The New York Times about identical twins being ordained priests in the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., and about the twin farming towns that have been extraordinary fruitful seedbeds of priestly and religious vocations. 

When Gary and Todd Koenigsknecht were ordained priests on June 14, they became the 21st and 22nd priests from the small farming village of Fowler, which boasts a population of 1,224. That brought them into a tie with the neighboring village of Westphalia, eight miles away, which has a present population of 938. 

Fowler and Westphalia have likewise produced an outstanding crop of many female religious vocations, with Fowler presently leading the holy competition 43 to 37. 

Jesus instructed us to pray to the Harvest Master to send laborers for His harvest and the farming families of Fowler and Westphalia have certainly responded. 

In the Koenigsknechts’ parish of Holy Trinity, there is a weekly Holy Hour for priestly and religious vocations, regular fund-raisers to support those who are following such calls, vibrant parish youth programs, and high Mass attendance. The same can be said of Westphalia and St. Mary’s Parish and School, where the Times article said that more than 12 of the 43 sixth-graders raised their hands when asked if they were considering life as a priest, Brother or Sister. 

In essays in their home parish bulletin, the Koenigsknecht twins described the impact of the vocational soil on their vocations. 

Father Todd said that home was his first seminary, reminiscing that his “priestly formation began long before I entered seminary,” in the prayers said at home and in the general attitude of faith that led to making and keeping daily commitments to God. 

Father Gary said that two experiences really affected him. The first was seeing his uncle, a priest, stop everything to pray his Breviary while helping them farm on his weekly day off. The second was a conversation with his parents when he entered adolescence when they asked him if he had ever thought about the priesthood and religious life, and told him that if God were calling, they’d have his full support. Both episodes, he said, gave him the courage to listen for a call and respond. 

The vocational fruitfulness of the tiny parishes of St. Mary’s in Westphalia and Holy Trinity in Fowler is something that should inspire and challenge Catholics in the parishes, cities and towns of our diocese, most of which are considerably larger. Why are some parishes so fruitful while many other parishes haven’t produced a seminarian or novice in years? 

Two recently-published reports by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate give us a window into best practices in vocational promotion and a lot of hope with regard to vocational numbers. 

One study showed that there are presently 350,000 single Catholic males 14 and older in the U.S. (three percent of the overall male Catholic population) who say they’ve “very seriously” considered a vocation to the priesthood, yet only 1,000 (0.29 percent) enter seminary or novitiate each year. In the other study, CARA sought to examine, by interviewing present seminarians and young clergy, what were the factors that led them to go from serious consideration to entering. If that percentage increased just a little, the report said, “there would be no discussions of a priest shortage.” 

CARA described that among the most significant factors were having priests as teachers in the classroom, receiving regular Spiritual direction, experiencing a vibrant campus ministry, participating in Christian service opportunities, having supportive friends and roommates, going on retreats, having access to daily Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours and Bible studies. 

For all these reasons, CARA says that strengthening Catholic colleges and universities is essential, since these parts of a “vocational culture” are more easily found on Catholic campuses, where only seven percent of Catholics attend but from which 44 percent of priestly ordinations come. One of its strongest recommendations to promote vocations is for bishops to sacrifice talented priests to teach courses and be present in vibrant campus ministries. 

It also described the importance of vocational encouragement. Their studies show that if a young man has three people encourage him toward the priesthood, he is five times more likely to consider a priestly vocation. The first time one is encouraged, he might laugh it off. The second time, he might think something strange is happening. The third time leads him to ask whether he really ought to consider it. 

Ninety-four percent of seminarians and recently-ordained clergy testify to how important this encouragement was from priests, family members, friends and roommates. 

At the same time, the CARA studies revealed that, as important as this encouragement is, only five percent of unmarried Catholics have ever encouraged anyone to think about the priesthood and a quarter of priests have never encouraged anyone. That, CARA believes, is one of the reasons why 349 out of 350 young men “very seriously” considering the priesthood never end up entering the seminary. 

One of the main things that has to be done to promote priestly vocations, therefore, is to “encourage the encouragers,” to create a culture in which all priests and faithful are regularly supporting those boys and young men they think might have priestly vocations to consider it. 

That’s something that’s clearly happening in Folwer and Westphalia. 

That’s something, we pray, that will happen more and more in Fall River and Westport, Fairhaven and Wareham, Falmouth and Wellfleet, and in the homes and farms, schools and colleges throughout our diocese.  

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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