Cardinal says 'the strongest candidates grow in hostile environments'

In an effort to respond to a “clear and pressing” need for priests, the Vatican has released a set of guidelines to help bishops and Church communities promote, recruit and educate a new generation of men for the priesthood.

The Church needs “suitable” candidates and must avoid men who “show signs of being profoundly fragile personalities”, while helping others heal from any possible “individual deviations” from their vocations, the document said.

“The witness of Christian communities giving account of the faith that is in them becomes even more necessary,” because it’s a community of believers committed to passing on God’s love that “prepares the Lord’s call that invites people to consecration and mission,” it said.

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Based on responses to a questionnaire sent to bishops’ conferences and directors of national vocations offices around the world in 2008, the Congregation for Catholic Education sought to address a widespread demand for pastoral guidelines for fostering vocations “based on clear and well-founded theology of vocation and of the identity of the ministerial priesthood”.

Entitled “Pastoral Guidelines for Fostering Vocations to Priestly Ministry”, the 29-page document was released today. It also marked the 70th anniversary of the inauguration of the congregation’s Pontifical Work for Priestly Vocations.

The challenge of attracting men to the priesthood is made more difficult by declining birthrates in the developed world and a materialist, secular culture in which people are less likely to make “courageous and demanding Gospel choices” in their lives, the document said.

“In the West, there is a prevailing culture of indifference to the Christian faith, a culture unable to understand the value of vocations to a special consecration,” it said.

Key to turning things around isn’t just setting up new programmes and initiatives, but building a vibrant, active and dedicated community of Catholics, united in prayer and with Christ, it said.

Some reasons men say “no” to or ignore a call to the priesthood, it said, include:

– having parents who are reluctant about their son’s choice because they have different hopes for their child’s future;

– living in a society that marginalises priests and considers them irrelevant;

– misunderstanding the gift of celibacy;

– being disillusioned by the scandal of priests who abused minors;

– and seeing priests who are too overwhelmed by their pastoral duties to the detriment of their spiritual life.

Vocations are fostered when boys and young men have an uplifting and transformative Christian experience, it said. That experience can be found in family life, at school, in the parish, as an altar boy, in Catholic groups and associations or in volunteer work, all of which allow them to “know first-hand the reality of God himself, in communion with their brothers and in Gospel mission”, it said.

During a Vatican news conference presenting the guidelines, Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the education congregation, said that, paradoxically, “experience teaches us that the strongest candidates grow in hostile environments”.

In places where there is open hostility to the Church, he said, vocations are “very healthy, very strong and [priests are] very aware that we have a mission”.

Mgr Vincenzo Zani, undersecretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, said the aftermath of the sex abuse crisis in the US has had some positive results, specifically in Boston, where the seminary is now filled thanks to an aggressive effort, led by the archbishop, to search for serious vocations.

While dioceses and seminaries bear most of the responsibility of determining the suitability of a candidate, vocations offices, too, must be consistent in attracting and forming people who display a healthy “integration and maturing of the affections”, the document said.

Men who “show signs of being profoundly fragile personalities” should not be encouraged to consider a vocation, it said.

The educational setting must support a candidate’s authentic reasons to be a priest and contribute “to healing any possible individual deviations from his vocation”.

Cardinal Grocholewski said determining “a fragile personality” at the early stages of a candidate’s journey is a question of discretion by trained professionals from the diocesan vocations office.

“There are some people whose fragility is easily seen, while others hide themselves, sometimes just because they want to seem like good people,” he said. “It’s a question of fundamental human maturity. We are looking for a person who is responsible, someone who can be trusted, a person who can control himself” and his impulses, he added.

“A more serious, mature judgment should come in the seminary, where in speaking and observing a candidate, his maturity can be better determined,” the cardinal said.

A priest represents Christ the shepherd, the document said, and as such, he must draw his strength from and base his vocation on loving and serving Christ and his church.

All Catholics, including parents, coaches, catechists and group leaders, should help their young charges to see the priestly vocation as a gift.

Boys and young men should be taught the value of prayer and meditation on God’s word, the document said, so that they learn to hear what God is calling them to do with their lives.

The congregation’s guidelines also called for diocesan vocation offices to organise a so-called “invisible monastery” where large numbers of people are dedicated to providing non-stop prayer for priestly vocations.

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