(Bishop Murphy has asked that this weekend’s preaching be devoted to vocations to the priesthood. This is in partial reply to his request, in addition to my homily at Mass.)
If there were an easy fix to the problem of attracting young people to the priesthood, it would have been done already. I believe that most of the proposed “fixes” (possible ones, like ending the celibacy requirement for diocesan priests and better conditions of employment; and impossible ones, such as ordaining women to the priesthood) fail to get at the core issue, however much any one of those fixes might make a difference at the margins. But the core issue why we don’t have priests is, I’m convinced, because the culture (and even many Catholics) aren’t convinced we need priests. Let me unpack that.
Traditional Catholic theology describes the role of the priest as mediator between God and humankind (for the theologically fussy, by participation in the priesthood of Christ, the One Mediator). The priest is the embodied bridge connecting the everyday to the mysterious, transcendent Absolute we call “God.” Here is the problem with finding people to play that mediator role in today’s culture:
Part of the evidence I see for my theory is that many people who do search for the Absolute look for spiritual guides outside the existing churches and their clergy. It’s difficult to book time to stay at a monastery, for instance; and gurus from Eastern religious traditions find a significant following. (Even in this context, though, the pull of therapy/coaching/entertainment is resisted only with difficulty. Not a few masters of Eastern religious traditions have noted their tradition’s debasement when “Westernized.”)
So to me the heart of the problem is that talented young people who are entranced by the search for God don’t see the parish clergy (of any denomination) as a place that search is likely to be welcomed and valued, nor a place that they will meet and serve others entranced by that search. Talented young people who want to be therapists, coaches, or entertainers can do those things as a profession or career and (with talent and work) become top-flight in the field; why do it second-rate in the clergy (while also putting up with all the other nonsense that goes into that role)?
Priests only “make sense” to people for whom the search for God is the most important thing in the world. We have too few of that sort of person. That, at least, is my take on the problem of recruiting potential priests. Until next week, peace.
 Every disciple is a mediator of Christ to others, of course. The priest makes “sacramental” and visible what is true throughout the Church.