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Why do some dioceses have dozens of seminarians and others have none? It’s actually quite simple

Everything depends on the character, fidelity and communication skills of the local bishop

By on Monday, 24 February 2014

Archbishop John Myers, right, shares a laugh with Cardinal Dolan (AP)

Archbishop John Myers, right, shares a laugh with Cardinal Dolan (AP)

I have been reading a book with the hopeful title Renewal: How a new generation of faithful priests and bishops is revitalising the Catholic Church. Written by Christopher White and Anne Hendershott and published by Encounter Books, it is a study of the Church in America. If ever a Church need revitalising, I feel it is our own Church over here. Nevertheless, although the culture in America is very different from this country, faithful priests and bishops share the same characteristics the world over – don’t they?

Studying dioceses and seminaries in the US, the authors’ theme is that dioceses that are committed to faithfulness and orthodoxy will attract young men to the priesthood. Bishops have a crucial role to play here, for “young people do not want to commit themselves to dioceses or communities that permit or simply ignore dissent from Church doctrine”.

What is the point of making a decision to lead a radically counter-cultural way of life with all the sacrifices it entails, when you are surrounded by men who are busy watering down the divide between faith and the secular world? Or who are hiding behind an elaborate bureaucracy, only emerging to mouth platitudes? When Benedict XVI visited the US in 2008 he addressed priests with the words: “Reject any temptation to ostentation, careerism or conceit. Strive for a pattern of life truly marked by charity, chastity and humility.” That is what young men need to hear – and also what the lay faithful as a whole needs to hear. When we hear bishops using this kind of language we all listen. Priests come from families; priests influence families.

If ordinations to the priesthood are an indicator of a healthy diocese, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey, is doing a good job. In the appendices at the back of Renewal there is a list of ordinations by diocese from 2003to 2011. Most of them, whether large or small, and allowing for the occasional spike in the graph, have a list of low single figures. Los Angeles, surely one of the larger dioceses, had six ordinations in 2011, up from three the year before. New York had four. Washington had five.

But Newark, a humbler diocese, had 18 ordinations in 2011 and double figures for almost all the previous eight years. So what is Archbishop Myers doing right that seems to be eluding many of his fellow US bishops? The authors suggest he offers strong leadership, orthodox teaching and makes vocations a priority. As Catholic author Walker Percy, quoted by the authors, states: “All that is needed is a bearer of the Good News who speaks of it with such authenticity that it can penetrate the most exhausted hearing.”

Actually, there are some other bishops who are making a difference today in the US. For instance, the seminary in Baltimore, with 170 men in training, is at maximum capacity. And Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC and Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln among others, speaks out with ringing conviction and “authenticity”. They know that the lay faithful want only one thing: the Faith, and how to live it in their daily lives.

Years ago, I recall reading with amazement the pastoral letter of 1991, addressed to married couples and doctors that the late Bishop Glennon Flavin of Lincoln ordered to be read out by parish priests in every church in his diocese. It was entitled “In Obedience to Christ” and was about the implementation of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on married love and contraception.

I was amazed because I had simply never come across anything like it in this country from any bishop. Bishop Flavin actually spoke with authority. He began: “As a bishop of the Catholic Church and as a successor to the Apostles, my first duty is to teach ‘the Catholic faith that comes to us from the Apostles’.” I had been under the vague impression that the first duty of bishops was to agree with each other and the bishops’ conference – and then to make some Left-leaning social comment that would sound good and draw a few headlines.

In a later paragraph, Bishop Flavin stated firmly: “To have certitude of faith in regard to the use of marriage, and indeed in regard to all the teachings of the Catholic Church, we must understand the nature of the Church. Our Blessed Lord … came to earth almost 20 centuries ago not only to redeem us by His Passion, death and Resurrection, but also to teach us how to live our lives in order to spend eternity with Him in heaven.” He goes on in this vein.

The whole letter is well worth reading, not only for the particular teaching here laid out with clarity, firmness and vision but as a mini-catechism on its own. Incidentally, Bishop Flavin attracted many young men to the priesthood. The moral is that if we seriously want renewal over here our bishops, led by our new cardinal, would do well to imitate his kind of leadership.