We need priests.

This has been the echo of not merely vocation directors, other men in the priesthood, the faithful themselves but also the call that has not always been a welcome voice: the sociologist.

I got to spend a portion of this weekend with the noted Purdue University Sociologist Jim Davidson at the Murnion Lecture sponsored by the National Pastoral Life Center and their Common Ground Initiative. It was not lost on me that both of these entities were founded by good priests namely Msgr. Phil Murnion and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. We dearly miss both of these giants since their deaths.

But interestingly enough, the lecture was not about priesthood but about laity and what American Catholics think about the church. The aforementioned Dr. Davidson keynoted the evening and I sat on a panel of responders with 3 other noted experts in their fields all of whom I was humbled to just be associated. Sr. Amy Hoey, RSM, a Lay Ecclesial Ministry Consultant, Fr Alan Deck, SJ a noted expert in Hispanic Ministry and Melissa Cidade, a Research Associate, CARA, Georgetown University.

We spoke a lot on how an older generation of Americans were what Dr Davidson named “Cuture I” Catholics. They viewed the church springing forth from the priesthood to the people. The clergy made the rules and the laity followed them and moreover supported them.

As Catholics have become more middle class and more theologically educated over the past 50-60 years, there has been a shift in a majority of people’s thinking about the church. “Culture II” Catholics as Dr Davidson again notes are people who see themselves as contributing to the life of the church just as much as the clergy. Note that we didn’t say MORE than the clergy, but rather it’s more of an equal partnership. The Second Vatican Council opened the doors for laity to express their baptismal call as Church, the people of God.

Naturally this has caused a type of culture clash, has it not.

My point in all of this is that young people don’t seem to belong to either culture, but rather have seen the forest for the trees. They have seen the value of making their own contribution and for a need to critically challenge the clergy in matters that are scandalous (such as clergy sex abuse and finances). And yet, young people still hold the priesthood in high regard in most matters–most often they trust that they know their theology and hope that they can make sense of spiritual matters for them not merely on Sunday but when they search (most often online and anonymously) for answers of faith.

But we don’t have enough priests and so many get lost in their own spiritual search.
It seems to me that one of the interesting issues of the vocational crisis is that the newly ordained have stated that having an experience with another priest or campus minister was what inspired them to the priesthood (and I would think the same is true for religious women).

But if we have less of these relationships building with our priests (and dare I say, more of these opportunities with young teens will fall to the wayside now because the sex abuse scandal has made everyone skittish about priests interacting with young children) then are we really to expect vocations to the priesthood to rise in number? I think that’s somewhat doubtful.

However, there is some good news in store. We have a growing diaconate and a growing educated laity who are slowly making more contributions to the life of the church. I know in my own role as a lay minister tons of people come to me to ask me about how I decided to enter into this phase of my still-young life. Many men don’t consider priesthood simply because of the celibacy question. Many want a family and feel called to marriage and still feel a call to ministry. Women who aren’t able to be ordained in the Catholic Church today are also called to ministry and where would we be without them today? Women have made HUGE contributions to all kinds of things in Catholic Life. It was not lost on any of us that we honored a woman at the Murnion Lecture this year Carol Keehan, President and CEO, Catholic Health Association of the United States–and what a significant contribution indeed one woman has made in the name of all that is Catholic.

But herein lies a huge problem. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the moment when the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus can only happen at the hands of a priest. How do we sustain ourselves as a Eucharistic Community? Can we sustain that community–or will we indeed need to look at new and creative models? It seems to me that if our faith is based on Eucharist and not necessarily on priesthood that it is merely a more creative solution to continue getting the Eucharist to the people of God that we need (communion services, Diaconate use, etc.).

In short, I pray every day for more priests. But I also pray that we all can continue our partnership with them, called to our own ministries sharing equally in bringing Christ to one another.