With more than 2.5 million Catholics and about 370 parishes, the New York Archdiocese—like U.S. dioceses everywhere—needs more priests. As Church leaders and laity are well aware, the number of ordinations has dropped considerably in the past 40 years, so that there are not enough priests to replace those who retire.
The archdiocese is taking steps to increase the number of candidates who begin studies for priesthood each year. Father Luke Sweeney, archdiocesan director of vocations, spoke with CNY about what is being done, and how everyone can help.
The goal, he said, is to have 40 candidates annually, in the hope that at least 20 will be ordained six to eight years later. (The attrition rate is from 40 to 60 percent.) The figure of 20 comes from the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors, which helps dioceses to assess their needs. The goal figure of 40 is double the 20 candidates that Father Sweeney has been seeking for several years. The past year has been successful: 18 candidates began studies in the fall, and two are to begin this month.
The archdiocese hopes to ordain eight men in 2013, five in 2014, and perhaps 10 or more in 2015, Father Sweeney said. This year, because of a change in the seminary program, only one priest is expected to be ordained. Father Sweeney explained that the seminary formerly had a five-year program: one year of philosophy and four of theology. In 2006 the U.S. bishops asked for two years of philosophy; inserting the extra year caused a “gap year” in which there were no candidates.
The archdiocese has 65 seminarians: 27 in theology studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and 38 in philosophy in preparation for entering St. Joseph’s.
“There’s no reason a diocese of our size should not be able to produce the necessary candidates,” Father Sweeney said, and he outlined a plan with four elements: prayer, vocation promotion, the family and priests.
“The first element has to be prayer, especially Eucharistic adoration,” he said. He suggested that priests include the vocation intention in morning and evening prayer, and he said that the archdiocese is working on parish bulletins inserts to remind Catholics to pray daily for vocations.
The second element is the work of the Office of Vocations. Father Sweeney visits parishes to preach at Masses, and speaks at high schools, colleges, youth groups and young adult events. He noted that when he meets with someone who is considering a vocation, his role is to help him determine “whether priesthood is a realistic vocation for him, or whether God is asking him to go in another direction of service in the Church.”
Father Sweeney noted that the Office of Vocations staff includes Father Luis Saldana, director of vocations for Hispanics, and office assistant Roenice Gonzalez.
The third element in the program is the family, because of its influence on the spiritual development of children and teens.
“It was my family that taught me how to pray, and provided an environment where I did pray, at home and in church,” Father Sweeney said. He asks families to be open to a vocation to priesthood or religious life, and to provide “the environment where their children and be saints, and can come to know God’s will and do it with all their hearts.” He added that young people need to be helped to develop a stronger prayer life and to receive the sacraments regularly, because “when prayer and Mass attendance and regular confession are there, God’s voice can be heard much more clearly.”
For families who fear their child will be pressured, Father Sweeney said, “As a vocation director, I want to assure them that…we’re not here to twist a young man’s arm to get him into the priesthood, but to give him the space he needs to prayerfully consider whether this is God’s will for him.”
The fourth element is the ministry of priests in parishes and schools, “because they are the ones who are the models for priesthood in a young person’s life,” Father Sweeney said.
He said that many Catholic young men¬—5 to 15 percent in his opinion—give consideration to pursuing the priesthood.
“I find that young high school men who are thinking about the priesthood are excited about it,” he said. “And men of college age…tell amazing stories of God’s grace in their lives to help them realize their vocation.”
He described the candidates the archdiocese seeks as “men of prayer whose humanity will bring others closer to Jesus Christ and his Church, and who have a heart of charity” like that of Christ.
The archdiocese offers two discernment weekends yearly at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie for men 18 and older. The next one will be the first semi-silent, preached retreat in the series, from Friday to Sunday, Feb. 17-20. Cost: $50. Reservations are required: (914) 968-1340.
The Cathedral Prep program, for boys in high school, offers a monthly weekend at the seminary that includes prayer, talks on the priesthood and sports. Eighth- through twelfth-graders are invited to the annual Vocation Mass at the seminary; this year it will take place on Monday, March 19. Seventh-graders are invited to join in various Cathedral Prep events, and fifth- through eighth-graders may participate in the annual summertime Quo Vadis Day at the seminary, with prayer and talks on priesthood.
Information is available from Father Sweeney at (914) 968-1340.