Ask any vocation director and he will tell you that the one question we are consistently asked is, “How many guys do you have?” This could refer to discerners, seminarians, men to be ordained or any other possibility. In many ways, the question makes sense. After all, we know that there is a shortage of priests so people are understandably concerned about how many men are discerning or in the seminary. Despite the logical nature of the question, vocation directors can get a little frustrated by it. Since I became vocation director three years ago, I have been told multiple times to remember that it is not about numbers, that what the Church needs today is not quantity but quality. This has seemed even more serious this last year with all of the scandals and heartbreak the Church has undergone.
Last year as summer gave way to fall, I was a little nervous about what the numbers would look like. Cardinal Dolan encouraged me to be patient since this could be a rough year with men coming forward to pursue a call to the priesthood. As the days and weeks passed, an extraordinary thing began to take place. I would come into the office and there would be emails or voicemails waiting for me from men thinking about a vocation. Several pastors came forward with parishioners they have been working with and encouraging to take the next step in applying for seminary. As I met with each man and worked with them over the last several months, I was so encouraged by their desire to serve the Lord in a time that has been so challenging. Many of them have commented, “Father, I want to be part of the solution.” What beautiful signs of hope in the midst of the difficulties the Church faces.
As pleasantly surprised and happy as I was about the number of men discerning the priesthood, I was further encouraged that New York is not alone in the uptick of seminarians and discerners, as this has been something I have spoken about with vocation directors across the country. A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with Father George Sears, the rector of Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston, Queens, and he told me that there are almost not enough rooms next year for all the men that should be entering from the seven dioceses that send their seminarians there.
What are we to make of this surprising outcome? It would seem after the year that the Church has just endured, and as there are still no doubt challenges and struggles to come, that the numbers should be down and that the situation in the seminary would be dire. Every human metric would point to this. How fortunate that God is not affected by our human presumptions. What this only reinforces for me is that the true vocation director is and has always been Jesus. When His Church suffers, even when these wounds may be self inflicted, He does not abandon us but draws ever closer and inspires people to help rebuild His Church. A look at Church history only makes this point even clearer. Whenever the Church faced persecution or was weak and powerless in view of the world and society, the greatest saints emerged. We can think about the many martyrs of the early Church or the reforming saints like St. Charles Borromeo, the founder of the seminary system, who helped guide the Church after the Protestant Reformation.
It is certainly true that the work of vocations is much more than numbers. Above everything else what the Church needs today are happy and holy priests. Despite the challenges and trials we face, we see that the Lord is always the One Who draws men to carry out His saving work. No matter how difficult things may be, Jesus will never abandon His Church, but will always call men to into the vineyard to reap a harvest for the salvation of souls.