In the late summer and early fall of 1776, following disastrous defeats at the Battle of Long Island and the subsequent Battle of White Plains, it seemed that the hope of American independence was all but over. Writing to the citizens of the new republic, Thomas Paine penned a series of 16 pamphlets, titled “The American Crisis,” in an attempt to rally support for the fledgling cause. The opening line of his first volume published in December of 1776 begins with the immortal words, “These are the times that try men’s souls…”
Over these last few weeks, I have been reminded of that phrase many times. As reports came out from Pennsylvania with their horrific accounts of what took place over the span of seven decades, emotions have ranged from anger to sadness. During lunch with a priest friend not long ago, he asked if I had seen any fallout regarding vocations in light of all this. Nothing perceptible had happened insofar as no one withdrew from the seminary or discernment as a result, but it is still too early to tell what the full ramifications of this will be. It is very possible that a man could be dissuaded from pursuing a vocation, but it is also possible that a man who feels called to the priesthood will pursue the call precisely because he wants to be part of the solution to bring healing to the Church.
My role as vocations director puts me in a unique position in light of all of this news since I am the first one that a man contacts when he is thinking about beginning a more formal process of discernment, presuming that he has already spoken to his parish priest and spent time in prayer before calling my office. Since there is a crisis concerning the number of priests we have, people may think we would be willing to accept almost anyone who voices the thought of a priestly vocation. Nothing could be further from the truth. There have been times, for a variety of reasons, when I have told a man that it seems that God is calling him to a different vocation and that there are many ways to serve the Church other than the priesthood. Such a decision is never made lightly or arbitrarily but is the fruit of prayer and discernment on my part as well.
Additionally, when someone approaches me with the prospect of a vocation, I always feel much more comfortable when his parish priest first calls me to speak about his parishioner and what he has observed that makes him think the parishioner would be a good candidate for the priesthood. The input of my brothers is so critical since we priests are all vocation directors. After significant time spent with the man, the formal application process proceeds only after he has completed his two-day psychological assessment at St. John Vianney Center in Downington, Pa. The assessment covers two days because it is so intense that by the end of the first day the man may be exhausted and this could skew the results of the rest of the tests he has to undergo if they were to continue into the evening. After all this is finished, I receive a 13-page summary of the assessments and recommendations. Only then will the man be considered for acceptance into the college seminary. At this point, he is still at least six years from ordination.
In an ironic twist, the reduced number of seminarians actually helps to ensure the types of men who will be ordained since it would be very difficult for a seminarian to “submarine,” or hide, any serious issues that need to be addressed in formation or may cause his dismissal. Transparency in the seminary is critical. I write all this to give people a sense of what we are doing to make sure that the men who serve in the parishes of this archdiocese are healthy and happy, so we can begin to rebuild the shattered trust and faith of the people of God.