Evangelize Or Fossilize

A mere coincidence? When they phoned to tell me the news that Pali Juan Camacho (a priest in Guam) just passed away, I was reading the Statistic Yearbook for 1997 which the Holy See has just published.

This yearbook provides facts and figures on the Church throughout the world, which may seem dry and cold. But on closer reading, these numbers give us a good insight into the health of the Church as an institution in the world.

Unprecedented "Boom" Of Seminarians

We knew it. Priests are decreasing... from 420,000 in 1978 to 404,000 in 1997 - a decrease of 4%. Men religious (excluding priests) have decreased from 76,000 to 58,000. The number of priest religious, which twenty years ago was 158,000, has decreased to 140,000. Women religious have decreased even further - by 17%. The crisis is most acute in Oceania and Europe. Asia and Africa represent the hope of the future, as these have experienced constant growth in consecrations to the religious life.

The good news is that the future is full of hope.

Vocations to the priesthood are increasing at a very exciting pace. In 1978 there were 63,882 seminarians; at present there are 108,517, an increase of nearly 70%. The increase in Africa and Asia is remarkable. In all the continents, in fact, there has been a decisive increase in vocations, with the exception of Oceania, where the figures just went up marginally from 784 to 797 seminarians.

An Enriching Experience

I have just returned to Guam from Newark, New Jersey, where I took part in the ordination to the priesthood of sixteen young men. The Newark Archdiocese has again laid claim to the largest priestly ordination class in the United States.

Six of these seminarians came from the diocesan missionary seminary Redemptoris Mater in Kearny, which provides formation to vocations coming from the Neocatechumenal Way. The six came from the Philippines, Wales, Tanzania, Malta, Illinois and California.

All of them brought a wide variety of experience and background to their priesthood. One of them was a aerospace engineer before joining the seminary. A recent national survey revealed that 22% of those preparing to become priests this year in the United States were born in other countries.

It was a very beautiful experience well worth the long journey. The Cathedral was packed with people coming from all over the world. The music, especially the brass instruments, were very effective in creating the right atmosphere.

It was exciting to see a Church alive, full of hope for the future. More than 300 priests were present for the occasion.

Priests For The New Millenium

Cardinal Godfried Daniells is from Belgium. Seeing the crisis in priesthood around him, he once made this interesting comment, "There is always another phenomenon behind the slump in vocations - the diminishing of faith. I am not saying that the charism is completely lost. But vocations are an indication that the faith is being lived intensely. That's why I say we will never overcome the crisis by intensifying our planning. No one would be attracted by mediocrity and mediocrity is all around us. What does attract is the fascination of a life intensely devoted to following Jesus Christ."

In search of a new pastor, this non-denominational congregation advertised for someone "able to walk on water and move mountains." They knew they had the right person when a candidate arrived for the job interview sporting a life jacket and carrying a shovel.

A good sense of humor and the readiness to do the dirty work are essential for any priest today. The priest cannot be a mere administrator or executive manager. He is a shepherd, 'pastor' in Latin, ready to go in search of the lost sheep.

This is possible if he lives an intense life of prayer, because as Saint Therese says, prayer is "something important that makes the soul grow and unites it to Jesus".

A friend of mine told me this story recently. She was wrapping a birthday present for me when her spunky little daughter came into the room. "What are you wrapping, Mommy?" "A present for Father Pius". "What are we giving him a present for?" "Because tomorrow is his birthday." "How come his birthday is tomorrow? I thought all priests had to be born on Christmas day..." Alter Christus!
Christ is overburdened with apostles who talk. He hungers and thirsts for apostles who live His life.

The Priest Is Never Right

Priests live with people. Many times, misunderstandings, mistrust and empty criticism diminishes the ardor and zeal of priests. They feel so lonely.

I do not know who wrote this but it surely makes sense. "If a priest preaches over ten minutes, he's long winded. If his sermon is short, he didn't prepare it. If the parish funds are high, he's a businessman. If he mentions money, he's money-mad. If he visits his parishioners, he's nosy. If he doesn't, he is snobbish. If he has fairs and bazaars, he's bleeding the people. If he doesn't, there isn't any life in the parish.

"If he takes time in confession to help and advise sinners, he takes too long. If he doesn't, he doesn't care. If he celebrates liturgy in a quiet voice, he's boring. If he puts feelings in it, he is an actor. If he starts mass on time, his watch is fast. If he starts late, he's holding up the people. If he tries to lead the people in music, he's showing off. If he doesn't, he doesn't care what the mass is like. If he decorates the Church, he's wasting money. If he doesn't, he's letting it down. If he's young, he's not experienced. If he's old, he ought to retire.

"But if he dies ... there may be no one to replace him!"

This is a fact! Each time we lose a priest we have no one to replace him with. We come up with makeshift solutions but these are many times spartan surrogates.

Evangelization is not on the agenda of the church; it is the agenda of the church. Only if we evangelize seriously, can priests and lay people "work in the deep harmony which the God-given nature of the Church presumes. Priestly vocations flourish in situations where priests and lay people work together in mutually enriching ways." This is what Pope John Paul II said to our Bishops of the Pacific region just six months ago when he received them at the end of their ad limina visit.

It makes sense.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.