Question 38



Many people ask “Why are there so few young priests and religious today? What happened?” People are concerned because they no longer have easy access to the sacraments. Some pastors say 4-5 Masses each weekend. Others cover 3-4 parishes. There are few Sisters to teach the faith to young people. Religious houses find it difficult to continue to provide the liturgy of the hours, retreats and their regular apostolates. 

After WWII there were 45,000 major seminarians and large ordination classes every year. Novitiates for religious orders were full. Many orders were expanding their motherhouses and formation houses. But all that changed. Now there are 4,500 major seminarians in this country. The USA and Canada have the smallest number of seminarians, proportionate to their populations, in the world. Novitiates are nearly empty. Some houses have not had a new member for twenty years. The profile of ages is no longer a pyramid (few at the top and many at the bottom); now it is an inverted pyramid. The ordination class for Chicago in 2007 was 14; 13 of whom were born outside of this country. 

What happened? There are many causes that have contributed to today’s shortage, e.g., confusion in seminaries and houses of formation as to the nature of the priesthood and religious life; the sexual revolution and its impact upon moral theology (the clergy sex scandal is one result of this), easy access to material comforts, materialism, consumerism, and a secularism that emphasizes rewards in this world to the neglect of another world. 

Behind all these there is one more basic cause that exerts a crippling influence. Today we are lacking a spirit of generosity, a spirit of high ideals, and a love that leads one to lay down his life for those he loves. This spirit of generosity is crucial to all human relationships, like friendship, marriage, family, community and patriotism. Without this spirit of generosity, strong bonds between human being cannot develop and thrive. 

We see what a stunted sense of generous self-giving does to a marriage and family. This deficit makes it almost impossible for couples to make vows “until death do us part.” A 50% divorce rate today implies that many couples entered their marriage with conditions, or escape clauses. There is an unwillingness to accept whatever challenges the future holds for a couple. They are not prepared to work out their problems together, relying upon the grace of God to cover what they lack. One’s personal good takes preference over the good of the marriage and the family. 

Generosity, the giving of myself for the benefit of others, is a quality in human relations that belongs most especially to marriage and family. A wife and mother must know she is loved for who she is and for all her labors for her family. A husband and father must know that he is needed and appreciated for his support and protection. Children need to experience the spirit of generosity in their parents, and within their family. 

This requires proper priorities: God over human trends, persons over things, the spiritual over the material, and morality over expedience. Some simple checkpoints come to mind. Does your family eat together every day, or do school and social events take priority? Do praying together and religious education continue every week? Do members of the family make sacrifices for each other? If young people do not see a spirit of generosity in their parents and family, then they do not know what it is. Unless they have shared in many efforts to build up the common good, expecting no other reward than seeing the good flourish, then they are unprepared to give of themselves. 

In a marriage, the greatest sign of total self-giving is the spousal act. In their special act as spouses, the couple is to bring the fullness of who they are, as bodied-persons, to each other. No conditions, no reservations, nothing held back. Openness to spousal love, as God designed it, means openness to the gift of new life in the form of a child. If a couple is not open unconditionally to each other in their spousal act, the act that expresses their committed union, then they cannot remain open unconditionally to each other in their marriage and family. 

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have always come from families who live the spirit of generosity. Most vocations come from large families, where there was great opportunity to practice self-giving. And this makes very good sense. Jesus is the model for all priests and religious, because He is generosity and self-giving personified. If a young man or woman is to follow Christ “single-heartedly,” then they must already know something about generous self-giving. A calling to priesthood or religious life cannot survive without this. 

Do we see what contraception and sterilization have done to our marriages, our families, and now to the priesthood and religious life? 

The solution? Rediscover God’s plan for human love and human life. Rediscover Humanae Vitae.

Cordially yours, 
Fr. Matthew Habiger , OSB