The center of the Eucharistic Revival, the three-year initiative of the Church in the United States, is obviously and appropriately the Eucharistic Jesus, the root, center, source and summit of the Christian life.
But as the Church celebrates on August 4 the patron saint of parish priests, St. John Mary Vianney, it is a fitting time to focus on the indispensable importance of the priest in the Eucharistic life of the Church. Without the priest, there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist, there is no Church. For the Eucharistic revival to spur the renewal of the Church, there is a need to strengthen the Eucharistic dimension of the priests we have and to pray to the Harvest Master for many more priestly laborers for His harvest.
Most Catholics are aware that there is a crisis in priestly vocations, with painful consequences in the life of believers. Twenty percent of U.S. dioceses did not have a priestly ordination last year. Many dioceses are bracing for the retirement and death of priests ordained in the 1970s, who presently represent 50 percent of their clergy. In the United States, there are 3,500 parishes without a resident priest, and lack of sufficient clergy is causing many Churches to have to close.
There are attempts at quick fixes in various places, like importing priests from religious orders or vocation rich dioceses in Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, India or Poland. In some circles, rather than look to such short-term solutions, people are trying to exploit the dearth in order to push for the ordination of married men or even to propose the dogmatically-impossible solution of the ordination of women.
But many places are not yet committed in a practical way corresponding to the importance and urgency of priestly vocations, for an effective long-term, whole-Church solution. It’s not enough for a diocese to appoint a vocations director and then to expect him to be able to remedy the crisis single-handedly or with an assistant or small team. There’s only so much one or a few can do.
The reality is that many parishes — just like many Catholic schools and high schools — have not produced a single seminarian in decades and a visit from a vocations director will almost never be sufficient to change what seems to be, sadly, vocationally infertile soil.
A profound culture change is needed, in which vocational promotion is not considered the duty of a few specialists but the common responsibility of priests and parishioners, moms and dads, catechists and coaches, siblings and friends, Catholic school teachers, cooks and custodians, everyone.
But a culture change is not enough. There’s also a need for prayer as if the Church’s whole life depended on it — which, in fact it does — as well as for effective action. Where can priests, parishioners and parents turn for best practices?
VocationMinistry.com is a superb place to begin. It was started by Rhonda Gruenewald, a convert, wife, mom, former public school English teacher and debate coach who in 2011 was asked by a priest at St. Cecilia’s Parish in Houston to help revive the parish’s weak vocations efforts. She did not even know at the time what the terms “vocation” and “discernment” meant, yet nevertheless agreed to help. She turned to the Internet to try to find best practices, only to discover that while there were various sites with some prayers or activities, there was nothing at all comprehensive. So she endeavored to fill the gap.
Over time, the fruits of her ideas spread throughout the Archdiocese of Houston and she started to get requests to speak in other dioceses and to address groups like the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors. Dioceses that have adopted her strategies have seen substantial progress, like the Diocese of Stockton, Calif., (no seminarians to nine), Grand Island, Nebraska (one to nine), Ogdensburg, New York (three to 18) and Peoria, Illinois (nine to 21), all in just three years.
Gruenewald has uploaded her best practices for free to VocationMinistry.com and has published them in two books, “Hundredfold: A Guide to Parish Vocation Ministry” (2015) and “The Harvest: A Guide to Vocation Ministry in Education” (2021) which are very easy-to-use, super-practical handbooks full of effective ideas for in parishes, Catholic schools, religious education program, and homes. They should be mandatory reading not just for vocation directors but for priests, Catholic school principals, religious education directors, parents, parish vocation teams and any Catholic who loves the Eucharist and wants to see Christ’s loving self-gift accessible to Catholics always and everywhere.
Gruenewald has broken down the nuts and bolts of priestly vocational promotion to four main activities.
The first is prayer, because priestly vocations are always a gift of the Harvest Master. She gives templates for prayer cards, intentions at Mass, bulletin blurbs, adoration for vocations and more.
The second is education, since so many Catholics don’t really know much about vocational discernment, what vocations there are in the Church, and where they fit into the Christian’s fundamental vocation to sanctity. VocationMinistry.com provides many educational resources and links to others.
The third is youth ministry, since 70 percent of priestly callings take place prior to a boy’s 18th birthday. Gruenewald gives many materials to help young people think about vocations at Mass, Catholic schools, religious education classes, youth activities, altar serving, Vacation Bible Schools and more.
The last is affirmation, in which those who have already said yes to a vocation — priests and seminarians — receive encouragement and support, through spiritual bouquets, cards, anniversary remembrances and other activities to persevere faithfully.
Her resources focus not just on priestly vocations, but also on religious and marital vocations, which are obviously interrelated with priestly vocations. A vocations culture involves helping everyone in the Church to seek, discover and respond to what God is asking.
Gruenewald’s research has shown that only 10 to 20 percent of Catholic parishes nationwide have anything in the parish intentionally working to stimulate and normalize vocational awareness and response. Many parishes don’t do anything even during the occasions when the Church explicitly focuses on vocation, like the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests, Priesthood Sunday, or National Vocations Awareness Week. She’s seeking to make vocational promotion the heart of every parish, family, parochial school and religious education program, since her research has shown that 80 percent of seminarians come from the 10 to 20 percent of parishes with a vocation ministry or committee.
She’s convinced that the lack of vocations in the Church today comes not because the Harvest Master has ceased to call, but because so many do not recognize the call and answer. That’s what she, through her work at VocationMinistry.com is trying to remedy. That’s what the Church, during this Eucharistic Revival, has an opportunity to revivify.