Retired priests engaged as part time help at a number of parishes, active pastors administering two adjacent parishes, and one or two priestly ordinations a year are unavoidable indications that fewer and fewer young men are entering the Catholic priesthood. Such has been the case for a number of years. The last priest ordained from my home parish in Woonsocket is now retired. The last diocesan priest to graduate from La Salle Academy, once a font of vocations, is now over 50 years old. The Diocese of Providence does fortunately maintain its own seminary on Mt. Pleasant Avenue in Providence. Local seminarians reside there as well as a good number of seminarians from surrounding New England dioceses. The men attend Providence College for their bachelor’s degree and then go on perhaps to Rome or Boston for completion of their studies. A small staff of local ordained priests provides for the administration, spiritual direction and recruitment of students.
My own decision to enter Our Lady of Providence Seminary after graduating from LaSalle was inspired, I hope, by the Holy Spirit but also in no small measure by the Religious Sisters of Mercy who instructed me for nine years at St. Charles Borromeo School in Woonsocket. The sisters were clearly proud of the number of former students that they could boast entered the priesthood thanks to their encouragement. The joke was that the sisters would put a notch on their leather belt for each student ordained. The sisters respected the priesthood. An etiquette of all standing, then boys bowing and girls curtseying, whenever a priest entered the room was strictly enforced. “Yes, Father” and “No, Father” were ingrained responses. The sisters told innumerable tales about men who were sad in later life because they neglected a call to the priesthood and, happily, about men who felt fulfilled in later life because they accepted God’s call to the clerical life. And, of course, instead of opening the Bible, the sisters read instead from the lives of the saints, making heroes of Dom Bosco, Francis Xavier, John Vianney, Vincent dePaul and innumerable other priestly champions. Although my parents were pleased when I entered the seminary and elated when I was ordained, it was truly the sisters who made the priesthood come alive and become attractive. Two of my former teachers embroidered a maniturgium for me when I was ordained. One is in my mother’s coffin. The other will be in mine.
Alas, the days of sisters ornamenting their belts with vocational victories are long gone. The belts are in a forgotten drawer and the sisters are no longer in the classroom. But the need for priests is ever more acute! And certainly one of the keys to the successful recruitment of seminarians and religious vocations in general is a respectful attitude toward the priestly life and a lively vocalizing of our Catholic heritage to our young people. Parents and preachers certainly, and just as certainly teachers in Catholic classrooms, religious education instructors, and parish youth workers must assume the responsibility of making the priesthood appealing, relevant, effective and, frankly, necessary to today’s youth. There was a certain romance in the lively stories the sisters narrated to their students in the classroom. Life in huge abbeys, adventures in foreign countries, risky encounters with Godless authorities, great penances freely embraced, distinctive religious attire — these images enlivened the imagination and triggered some curiosity. Perhaps the adventures of the innumerable modern saints canonized in the last half century might hold some contemporary appeal for today’s youth. Also, narrating challenging tales of the present-day priesthood itself — chilling encounters in accident rooms, shrewdly defending Christian marriage to clueless young couples, cleverly swaying a parish council to adopt a certain decision, the regimen of the Breviary, the adventure of preaching — might awaken some interest in a further pursuance of the priesthood.
Although the number of diocesan seminarians is few, the tuition for properly educating a future priest is costly. Providence College is financially very generous in accommodating students for the local priesthood and the diocese is fittingly grateful for their benevolence. But then there are four or five years of major seminary education usually in Rome or at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. This expense is not much different from the hefty tuition encountered anywhere today in higher education. The current diocesan capital campaign, Grateful for God’s Providence, has made one of its goals the financial support of the Office of Vocations. Well over half-a-million dollars is needed each year to educate future priests. In order to eliminate past deficits and insure future solvency, the campaign hopes to add $8 million to the current operating capital for seminary education and priestly formation. Your lively interest and your generous pledge are needed to augment the Catholic priesthood in the Diocese of Providence.