Fifteen young men, all in their late twenties, entered their local cathedral church on a beautiful Saturday morning. A couple of hours later they left the cathedral as fifteen newly-ordained young priests. That happened twenty-one years ago, and one of those fifteen was me. When we left, the seminary was full, with about a hundred young men studying to follow in our footsteps in years to come. Last month, during my holiday in Poland, I learnt that there were only eighteen students in the same seminary, and not a single new application had been submitted. It was a rather shocking, but hardly a surprising piece of news! There doesn’t seem to be one single reason for the shortage of priestly vocations, whether in Poland or in Scotland. Most of the reasons can be identified, but only a few can be acted upon.
The first place where a vocation to a religious life can be born and nurtured is the family. So many times I’ve come across otherwise pious and devoted parents, regular churchgoers, who have expressed their unequivocal horror at the very thought of their son or daughter choosing the life of a priest or nun. In their minds that would be on a par (or worse) with the prospect of their offspring dropping dead! I can see that particularly keenly amongst the local Polish community. Many of my compatriots expect to have Polish-speaking priests, nuns and catechists living in every tiny Scottish village and town, at their beck and call on a whim. Polish or not, we often forget that priests and nuns don’t grow on trees. They are born into the family, they grow up and mature in the family, and when they have responded positively to a religious vocation, they leave the family behind. As a community we are enthusiastically supportive and glad to hear about new priests; but such enthusiastic support ought to be present in our own families too. As we heard in today’s gospel, Jesus is called a carpenter, and his own family is recalled too.
The second important aspect regarding the lack of vocations is the contemporary cultural climate. Christianity seems to be out of fashion, a domain of the elderly and pensioners, unattractive, boring or irrelevant to the younger generation who know little or nothing about it anyway. Consequently, a lifestyle choice as a priest or a nun isn’t an attractive career prospect. Some might argue that there would be more priestly vocations if priests were allowed to marry, or if we had female priests. The acute shortage of ministers in the reformed churches in Scotland contradicts such an assumption.
So, can we do anything; and, if so, what can we do? In my opinion, there is a problem with ‘the language’ we use to proclaim the Good News. The way the Church teaches is stuck in the 1960s and 70s at best; and if anything about the Church makes it into the mainstream media, it is presented either scandal or protest. We are good at ‘calling to arms’ against various modern challenges, but much less effective in offering a positive solution to people’s troubles and needs. Unsurprisingly, many within the Christian community are put off by this kind of religious militancy, and it’s getting harder to rally people to involve themselves actively in protests. Christianity needs to update it’s ‘language’ – update it to become relevant and helpful. There’s no shortage of people in great need of the gospel among us. The current epidemic of mental health problems, particularly among young people, isn’t coincidental. Religious faith can offer great perspective and vision, plus a wider context to life, with its complications and challenges. A community that cares can offer support, as we have experienced in this parish. St Mark, in today’s gospel, reports that Jesus could not work any miracle in the community he visited because of the people’s lack of faith. But when a community radiates and lives out the faith, miracles do happen.
In what I’ve just said, I’m not advocating radical changes to the orthodoxy of the Church’s teaching. I’m talking about making gradual changes to the ways that teaching is delivered. Of course, none of us has much impact on how things go higher up in the Church, yet alone all the way to the Vatican. Truly, I’m only an inconspicuous parish priest in a God-forsaken corner of Scotland, and most of you are similarly ‘powerful’. But hey, we are here to respond to God’s call that we heard in the first reading: ‘I am sending you to them to say: The Lord says this.’ This revolution must start from ground up. And why not here, on the Costa del Moray?