Why so few seminarians? While Vatican II is a popular target, we perhaps should hesitate before assigning blame, a practice that rarely leads to truth. Historically, vocations have ebbed and flowed within a given century, and to look at the period of increase from 1945-1960 is misleading, without a view of the broader historical context. WWII may have fostered entrance into religious vocations, and the cultural revolutions and disenchantments of the 1960s may have facilitated their subsequent departure.
Theologically, it could be that the Holy Spirit has been inspiring a flourishing of lay vocations, often to do what priests in the past had to do, in part to leave priests free to do what they alone can: be the leader of prayer, the icon of Christ, the servant-leader.
Writing for the Homiletics and Pastoral Review, Fr. Joseph Upton suggests that perhaps the troublingly low number of religious vocations may parallel the troublingly high divorce rate in a fundamental way: a simple lack of commitment.
“Many seminarians express confusion, discomfort and spiritual malaise at experiencing ‘a sense of being called’…spending their time in chapel asking God for some sign, some clear indication of which vocational path he wants them to take. When these signs are not readily perceived, discernment may become stunted. He finds himself frustrated with God’s seeming lack of attention to his misguided, albeit sincere, desire for certainty.”
Fr. Upton goes on, drawing on the Angelic Doctor:
“St. Thomas implies that the mere experience of feeling called is an indicator that one is indeed called, not merely that one should consider whether they are being called. This may seem revolutionary, but in today’s cultural and ecclesial milieu, a young man who experiences what he perceives to be a possible call to priesthood might be tempted to think that this indicates nothing more than a responsibility merely to consider priesthood…We live in a culture that demands less and less commitment. We see all around us the signs of broken promises, wounded relationships, wasted potential, lack of direction. It is clear that many of these problems both foster and are the result of a real failure to commit. Seminaries should be full of men who are willing not just to ‘discern’ but to commit to priesthood, not because they have pieced together some vocational puzzle, but because they want to be, borrowing the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘genuine disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ.’
No doubt Fr. Upton would agree that we could substitute ‘seminaries’ with ‘homes’ and ‘priesthood’ with ‘marriage.’ With half of all marriages ending in divorce, we can be glad that 50 percent of priests aren’t leaving the Church.