I recently read a resignation letter from a priest to his bishop. The letter was written on the 33rd anniversary of the priest’s ordination, from within a psychiatric ward. It was an open, clear, and honest text. The priest had been in charge of a key diocesan office and witnessed a different reality in the lives of the faithful than his bishop wanted to acknowledge. This had created an unholy dissonance in the heart of this priest; the only way he could envision staying true to his priestly vocation was to say “no” to the bishop’s joy and pride in the diocese appearing to be a bulwark against the evils of modernity, liberalism, the culture of choice, Cafeteria Catholicism, etc. One particular element the priest mentioned in his letter was the fact that the bishop routinely lifted up with pride the ordinations of a few young men to the priesthood in his diocese. What was never acknowledged was that none of these young men were led to ordained ministry in that diocese itself; they came there by way of shopping for candidates for ordination internationally.
I think there is something deeply troubling in not acknowledging that the Titanic – in this case: the ship of vocations to ordained ministry – is sinking (even if this happens most dramatically in the North Atlantic world). Not that there is nothing to be done on a sinking ship, or compelling prayers to be had for that moment, but rituals of refusal of reality are, simply, unconvincing because un-truthful. As such, they are unable to set us free to face the moment with the “saintliness demanded by the present moment” (Dorothy Day). This brings me to a prayer that the bishop of the diocese in which I live much of the year asked all parishes to pray together at the end of Sunday Mass. Called a “Prayer for Vocations,” at heart it is a prayer for young men to be called to the priesthood. An opening paragraph of the scripted prayer reminds God that we are each created for a definite purpose and asks God to allow us to say “yes” to our vocations. The key petition that follows is for “vocations to the priesthood of Jesus Christ.” It asks that “our young men respond to Your call with courage and zeal.”
In principle, praying for vocations is simply one response to Jesus’s invitation to pray for laborers to be sent out into the harvest (Mt 9:37f). What strikes me as deeply problematic in this particular prayer for vocations is the context in which we are asked to pray it. To put it starkly, this prayer seems to ask a community to stick its head in the sand with regard to the drastic decline in vocations to ordained ministry in the North Atlantic world. Not that I do not believe in the power of prayer. I do, fervently so. But there are prayers that disempower, on the deck of the Titanic. As such, rather than being a sign of trust in God’s abundant grace, such prayers force us to perform a falsehood, and that on a sinking ship. After all, other prayers than the one cited above could be spoken, in 2023. Why not pray for the Church to come to its senses and begin again to ordain married men? We do already have married priests, in the Eastern Catholic churches. One might even pray that the insistent focus on one specific form of gendered embodiment – and one only – as a prerequisite for ordained ministry might fall by the wayside.
I say all this after having initially tried on the bishop’s prayer for “young men” to choose priestly ordination (but why not “older” men?). This despite the fact that as a scholar of liturgy, I object to a bishop’s pet-projects having to be voiced by a congregation before the final blessing at Sunday Mass. Intercessions are a perfectly appropriate place for that, if must be. More recently, I have simply remained silent, but that seemed a posture of angry defiance and not much more. Finally, I have started praying my own prayer, sotto voce, for God to speed up the Latin church’s recovery of priestly ordination for married men (it seems an eminently sensible little prayer, if I say so myself). Maybe next I will try on a prayer for gender simply no longer to function as a hyper-marked element in discernment for priestly vocations.
For now, however, the larger issue for me has become the question of truthfulness in prayer, as we try to stand before God in worship, in community. When is it time to say “no” to a performance that makes us complicit in a falsehood, by obedience to a command to rearrange deck chairs on a sinking ship rather than focus on the sinking that is so clearly taking place?
And yes, if I had not read the resignation letter by the priest I mentioned earlier, and then asked myself where I might be invited to resist, this bishop’s prayer might never have risen in my consciousness beyond a regular Sunday morning annoyance. The letter-writing priest, I am glad to say, is no longer on a psychiatric ward but with a religious community that has enveloped him and re-grounded his sense of priestly vocation. It seems that Truth can indeed set one free, even on a sinking ship.