From Catholic News Online of Singapore
Emphases and (comments) mine (BW)
HONG KONG – “The problem in the church is not with the vocation, but the fact that we have lost the culture of the vocation,” said Cesare Gambardella, the worldwide president of Serra International, which promotes vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
As a group founded at the initiative of lay people and functioning as a lay organization within the Catholic Church, Gambardella told the Sunday Examiner during a visit to Hong Kong on Sep 19 that the laity has a vital role to play in the promotion of vocations to the religious life. “We must work to achieve a new culture for vocation,” he went on. “We must understand that vocation is a part of life and, as Catholics, we all must be conscious of the vocation in our own lives.” (YES!)
The international president said that in order to do this, lay people must be closer to students in the seminary as, usually, we do not know much about them. Conversely, he noted that seminarians have a special need for a good understanding of lay people and this can only be achieved by forming close and deep friendships. (This is one of those articles that I believe has some very good points, but also may overstep in some places. This last sentence is an example. I don't know that you can say "only be achieved by forming close and deep relationships" as if it the sole path to understanding. First priests and seminarians understand the laity because they spent the whole of their life up to ordination as a member of the laity. Second, their families are members of the laity. And finally all of their good friends prior to ordination are still members of the laity. My point is not that newly ordained priests should not make friends with the laity, but that you can't say they won't understand them if they don't.)
He pointed out that in his native Italy, 15 percent of the newly ordained leave the ministry within the first five years of becoming priests. “They are alone,” he said, explaining that unlike the past, when a young priest began his career (IT'S NOT A CAREER!)as an assistant to an older, more experienced man, today, because of the low numbers in every diocese, they are alone in their parishes from day one. (I would be very hesitant to put the blame for 15% of the newly ordained in Italy leaving the Priesthood within five years on "being lonely" - that may be far too simple. Poor formation and preparation, unrealistic demands, and being given too much responsibility too soon might have more to do with it. In years gone by, newly ordained priests lived in a rectory with several other priests, had a regular prayer life in community, fraternal support, and reasonable responsibilities in the parish. In some Diocese, the soonest one might become a pastor was 12 years, and even then you would have associate pastors. Today, in some Diocese, a young priest barely has time to grow into his vocation as a priest before being sent alone to a parish where he may not have fraternal support, a regular prayer life, and is asked to take over the running of a small corporation. This last point is an important one. Think about the changes involved in being ordained a priest, then add to it the demands and responsibilities of running even a small parish. Budgets, staff, meetings, and many important decisions, all of which many not be in a new priest's skill set or gifts. Add to this the laity pulling you in countless directions and asking you to come over for dinner every night of the week. I could be wrong, but I don't think loneliness is the primary cause of men leaving the priesthood within five years.)
“They must find it extremely difficult,” Gambardella said. He said that although the life of a seminarian has changed and opened up radically since the pre-Vatican II days, he thinks that it is still reclusive in the sense that most of their day is spent with priests or other students.
“They must have lay friends during their student days,” he stated. “It seems that at the point of ordination, so many do not know how to make friends with lay people.”
Gambardella explained that his local Serra Club in Palmo, which he joined upon its foundation in 1981, visits a nearby seminary on a regular basis. “We eat together, pray together and play together,” he noted. “We take on community service commitments together and projects around the seminary, the local parishes or in peopleʼs homes.” (This really sounds good, but may not be entirely practical. Our seminarians already have a heavy workload, so this may just be more "work" for the seminarians. Forced friendship or interaction, may not be the best way encourage friendships amongst the laity.)
He said, “In this way real friendships are made. They are supportive and enduring, but most of all, the seminarian learns that he can have lay friends, with people who both support him and give him confidence to be their minister.” (Perhaps things are different in Italy, but I don't know any priests or seminarians that don't have very good lay friends.)
He explained that lay friends can give a young priest great self-confidence, as they affirm that he is acceptable as their priest and as a religious minister in their lives. “It is essential that priests be happy,” he said. “They must show their happiness to the world. This is an important part of their witness. And they need friends to be happy.” (OK, maybe I shouldn't have posted this article, but I'm too far into it now. "They need friends to be happy" - friends are good, very good, but I don't know if they are what priests need to be happy." Just skip down to the next emphasized section, that's why I wanted to post this in the first place.)
Gambardella, who ran an insurance agency until he took on the responsibility as Serra International President, said that it is the laity, not the priests, who are the principal witnesses to the faith in the world, so it is essential that the priest understand them well in order to guide, nourish and minister to them effectively.
He added, “Deep friendships with lay people also assist the priest in talking with those who do not have faith. It helps them in their witness and wider ministry as well.”
He said, “We cannot expect people to come to us. We have to go out and meet them. The priest must do that too. That is part of his wider ministry. Knowing and appreciating the life of the laity well is a good foundation for this.”
Consequently, Gambardella said that members of Serra must pray as well as work in society. “We have to help families to rediscover their unity and importance as the cradle of vocation. Families have to learn again how to appreciate vocation. We are working with the families of seminarians as well, as many of them are not supportive of their sonʼs aspirations to priesthood.”
He concluded, “We are not saying to people, ʻbecome priestsʼ; that is the work of the Holy Spirit. But we are encouraging each other to plant the seed of vocation in peopleʼs heads and hearts, by showing our appreciation of the ministry that the priest gives to us.”
He quoted Pope John Paul II who said that the way to become sensitive to our vocation is through prayer.
“Prayer can move Godʼs heart,” the late pope said.
(After reading this, I think I could make the opposite case. I think it is critically important for seminarians and priests to formal fraternal friendships with their brother seminarians and priests. In many Diocese once they get ordained and sent out to a parish, possibly with no other priests, they will be surrounded by laity, who will never be able to fully understand what it is like being a priest. Priests understand laity - they were lay at one time. But lay people were not, and are not priests. Fraternal friendships and support are critical in a world where they are often seperated by many miles - almost as solo missionaries in their parishes. The lack of fraternity is perhaps another important factor in the health of a priest's vocation in the early years.)
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