How to Increase Priestly Vocations

I heard the other day driving along and listening to Catholic Radio that in some diocese or other, the Catholic Church had one priest for every 12,000 laymen.

The mind boggles, right?

I can’t cite to a source, because I can’t even remember what program I was listening to at the time.

Obviously, there are not enough priests. And this itself must be an important factor of the dearth of priestly vocations. Imagine you were thinking about taking a job serving 12,000 people regularly even as, say, a cashier. It’s a non-starter.

The Church needs more priests. Fortunately, the recipe is not hard to discern – although it is a fair bit of work to implement. But then, once the men of the parish were engaged in the overall project, it could get to be lots of fun for everyone.

  1. Make the liturgy awesome, high, austere, and beautiful; terrifying, even – hair raising. That will entrance boys. So, chant, incense, bells, smells, and from the priests a demeanor of awed humble elevation and high dignity. Also, to Hell with modern “church” buildings that could as well work as warehouses. Move to an old church building, no matter who built it. They are cheap these days. Go to a bad neighbourhood to get it, if need be; the young men thereof are your mission field.
  2. Focus on ancient tradition: “we’ve been doing it this way for 2,000 years.” Few things are more fascinating to boys. Don’t bend an inch on this. It doesn’t necessitate the TLM, but it does necessitate tradition, and traditional doctrine and praxis.
  3. Never compromise on doctrine. Not one jot. “Yeah, abortion is murder; that’s all.” You’ll sort out the goats, and scape them to the Judean desert, where they shall soon plunge headlong into their wonted pit. They have their reward.
  4. All are welcome, but the price of entry is high: your life. Anybody unwilling to pledge his life (in some serious vocation or other – stand up comic, waiter, insurance salesman, whatever – is not going to get into the inner mysteries. For why? Well, why because, as unwilling, clearly he has not yet understood them! That’s what makes them mysterious.
  5. Make participation in the liturgy as acolytes or choristers exclusive to males. That will entrance boys. No yucky girls!
  6. Make participation in the liturgy as acolytes or choristers difficult; so that, to do it, you have to pass an audition, and then work your butt off, and pay attention, hard. Make it so that such participation is a huge challenge. That will appeal to boys Be sure to honor them for their success as ministers of the rites. Kick out an offender now and then. But, be sure to let him back in, should he repent.
  7. Make qualifying to partake the host terrifically difficult. That will make it precious. So, publicly refuse communion to notorious sinners. Kick out some grownups. That will appeal to boys. Children hate hypocrisy.
  8. In the pulpit, hammer on moral purity, and against sin. And talk about the mystical ascent. That will entrance boys. Children want to be good, and what is more holy; and want to be shown how to be good, and holy.
  9. Be honest about sex; about how it doesn’t often work out, and that fatherhood – and husbandry – are ascetic disciplines. Be honest also about the ascetic difficulty of priesthood. Tackle it head on. So, sort out the sex obsessed early in the process. Boys are confused about sex, and need to learn how it works really (and not according either to porn or to romantic comedy). Tell them how it works.
  10. So, be honest about homosexuality. Sort out the homosexuals early. No boy wants to join a gay confraternity. This is so, even if he be himself gay. Boys want to be men, to the fullest. So, no confraternity can afford to be predominantly gay. That said, a predominantly hetero fraternity can admit gay men and boys, provided they don’t act out.
  11. No such male confraternity can be about sex, whether hetero or homo. For, such would doom it to be in the end only about sex, whether hetero or homo. Thus, youth groups for teens should not mix the sexes. Are you kidding me? I was in such youth groups, and I know whereof I speak.
  12. For priests: be an awesome figure, physically fit and commanding – and, so, challenging. Do your best to seem like a guy who could knock down a crazy guy disturbing the liturgy. If possible, knock down such a guy, and then care for him, as his father.
  13. Try to get some monks or friars to attend Mass on Sundays, wearing their habits. Especially young guys still in formation: seminarians, novices, and so forth. Young, vigorous men with beards and muscles.
  14. Don’t neglect groups for men that women are not allowed to join: chant groups, contemplative prayer groups, Bible study groups, scout groups (led, NB, by parochial fathers), even Catholic martial arts groups. Seriously. Catholic dojos could be huge. Especially if they included work with spear and halberd, and with swords. Let boys join such groups as early as age 6.

Excursus: Age 6 sounds ridiculous, I know. That’s how old I was when I started out as a serious youngster, both charged and entrusted with the aweful service of the Lord. It was fantastic. Within months, I was singing Tallis usefully, and well. Boys learn amazingly fast, especially when they are convinced that what they are engaged upon is Important for Men.

  1. Institute truly difficult and painful rites of passage for boys and young men (and for girls and young women). Nightlong vigils are great. Fasting is good, too.
  2. Make RCIA hard. “You will read the entire Catechism, and discuss every section.” Fail a few students now and then: “Sorry, you’ll have to start over; you didn’t get the bit about the Trinity.” There should be tests, that must be passed. Not multiple choice, but essay.
  3. Emphasize the liturgical calendar. Make feast days a big deal, get the boys thinking early about their patron saints, and taking special measures to celebrate their feast days; and so forth.
  4. Be unwelcoming. Seriously. “This church is probably not right for you.” Take it away. Exact a high price of admission. “You want to join RCIA? OK, but first: how many hours have you given to charity this last year?” Not dollars, but hours.
  5. Provide ways that parishioners can labor for charity, under the auspices of the parish.

No parish priest could hope to do a tenth of all this on his own, of course. He’d have to recruit the help of many laymen.

But, any such priest might find himself surprised at how much help he would get from the laymen, for such a program eloquently expressed. People are thirsting for this kind of serious Christianity. It’s incredibly attractive.

34 thoughts on “How to Increase Priestly Vocations

  1. 20. Sports. Especially football and baseball. And small teams, enough teams, ESPECIALLY so everyone gets lots of playing time, NOBODY is relegated to the bench, and NOBODY is cut – losing candidates because of insufficient athletic skill defeats (what should be) the purpose of the program. The coaching need not be competent as to the quality of the performance achieved, but must serve to provide a (reasonably) safe environment. And of course, regular church attendance should be required for participation.

  2. Another for the list:

    – Good, Holy priests are raised in good, Holy families. Pray together as a family, go to Mass together as a family, talk about God at the dinner table and other times. Children who grow up knowing God will be more likely to be interested in serving him and serving him well.

    -dont treat other vocations as less or more serious. Marriage is as much giving your life away as the priesthood. Do you want to give your life away for the human race, or for the salvation of souls? Both are worthy, both are serious.

    • Quite right. Not enough emphasis is laid upon the fact that all stations of life can be – ought to be – holy vocations, including not just the explicitly sacramental orders (marital, priestly, diaconal, and monastic), but also eremitical spinsterhood and bachelorhood – an order to which most married people shall one day proceed.

      Let’s hear it also for deacons. Nothing blows a boy’s mind like seeing the father of one of his friends up there in the pulpit preaching. The diaconate looks much more attainable to a young man than the priesthood. And there can be represented in any parish of sufficient size at least one or two men who have traversed the path from acolyte or chorister to deacon. One of them, at least, might well have taken the next step, to the priesthood, or to monastic life.

      Also 3rd Order monastics. All good stuff.

    • Yes. A good church library, with a reading circle and a theology roundtable who meet around its conference table weekly are a terrific source of renewed parish life. These, along with RCIA and Bible Study, can be organized and led by laywomen. Or nuns, if such can be found. Even very young boys and girls can be welcomed in such gatherings, and their questions and comments respectfully entertained, so that they are treated as Christians in full, who like all other Christians of any age are forever going to be engaged in working things out.

      It is thrilling to a young person when a grown up he respects takes him seriously.

      You would be surprised to overhear some of the theological and metaphysical conversations I had with my fellow choristers when we were 10 or 11 years old. If you have been steeped in the relevant categories of thought for a few years, you can begin to operate upon the concepts fruitfully (just as, once you’ve been singing plainchant or polyphony for a few years, you begin to know how it ought to be sung, even if you know nothing about music history or theory). Our thought was boyish, but it was not clueless.

      You can hear examples of such puerile sophistication in some of the questions children ask of the apologists on Catholic radio. They are just as tough as the questions from the priests who sometimes call in.

  3. A variation on your priest theme concerns parishoners. How to attract new ones to fill pews as the gray hairs die off?

    Too much of the image of church is scary or plain incomprehensible. Make it accessible instead. Young people are pretty simple in that regard. Their eyes glaze over when being talked at instead of being engaged.

    • Accessible *and* scary, that’s the ticket. You are welcome in; but buckle up, because it’s a wild ride, that will demand your utmost.

      Church must be *difficult,* or people will treat it as no big deal. They will not so much value it. So it will be easier for them to check out.

      Quite right about youngsters hatred of condescension from adults. I well remember being scolded by an old lady – she was probably 27 – for being too loud in the Parish Hall or something. I obeyed her, but my resentful thought: “Who does she think *she* is? She isn’t my Mom or Dad, or the priest, or my choirmaster.” I rather despised her for her insolence.

      • There’s a story my friend hambone likes to tell of a woman who tentatively entered a church, immodestly dressed. She sat down and an old lady scolded her immediately for being improperly dressed for the reverent Mass.

        The woman left the Church in tears.

        Afterwards, the priest came up to the old lady and told her that she must pray for the young woman for the rest of her life.

        Church must be welcoming and inviting to the uninitiated, and must quickly reveal its majesty and power. I forget who wrote the article recently about the freemasons, but they must live reasonably comfortable in the outer circle but feel pressure to enter more deeply into the mysteries of the Mass and their own faith.

        Its a tough balance. Too hard, and you keep the curious and inquisitive souls away. Too soft, you lose discipline in the flock.

        Theres a balance here and i think it can be described as love. Tough love for those living in error, kind love for those living according the law.

      • The story is consistent with the usual prejudices of priests–they hate “rosary counting” old ladies and family men. Slutty young women are high status; rules don’t apply to them. See how priests bend over backwards to accommodate communists and sodomites. They’re high status. They’ve got sex appeal. That woman’s tears were fake–she knew damned well she can get whatever she wants, punish whomever she wants, with them. She knew damned well how one is supposed to dress in church but relished the thought that pious old ladies should not have a single place on Earth where their sensibilities aren’t offended. All this “welcoming” and “inviting” is fake; there’s not the slightest attempt to do it consistently. There’s no mercy for white men who won’t grovel, no accommodation for any attachment or taste that secular culture regards as low status.

      • Trads are to most of the hierarchy today as Magdalene and her ilk were to the Pharisees. The culture at large – the cult thereof – these days celebrates maudlins of all sorts, and abhors the old fashioned righteous, or merely polite.

        OTOH, lots of rejoicing in Heaven when a maudlin is converted, and repents. So the maudlins *really are* high value targets.

      • Being pastoral always means reinforcing the status hierarchies of this world, assuring everyone that they will endure for all eternity, so that in heaven, the self-declared last (high status official victims) will continue to be first.

      • Yes. This is the perennial besetting temptation of all priests. My father suffered it, and lost his clerical career – sacrificed that career – on account of his refusal to give in to it. Back then, in the early 70’s, it was still just barely the case in the Anglican Church that the hierarchy was financially beholden and morally subject to the major benefactors – in my father’s case, Eli Lilly, RIP, the dear dour old true conservative – of the Episcopalian ruling class that had reigned over North America for 300 years. But within a few years of his willing ejection from that hierarchy, in which he had already climbed far, a Nietzschean transvaluation of values (of which he was indeed, ironically, himself an urgent salient) transpired, and the high status people in the Anglican church were no longer those of the old money WASP ancien régime, but rather the high status sorts of today. The old money WASPs were thenceforth, and still are, the despised scapegoat class, the Low Men (joined in the last 20 years by the Evangelicals and the Catholics (but not – yet – the Orthodox Jews or Christians)). They and all their sort were and are for the time being the tax collectors at the back of the Temple, humbly begging for forgiveness on account of their manifold sins and wickednesses, while the archons of the new Pharisee class have since that revolution stood up front signalling their woke virtue, their contempt and their hatred. Luke 18:11.

        The problem the mainline churches now face is that in that transvaluation of values they accepted, they ejected, not just the people with the money needed to sustain their missions, but the people who believed most ardently in Christianity. So, they are doomed.

        God send that this tide may be stemmed in the Catholic Church, before it utterly destroys her, too.

      • I blame the lack of clericalism. Being a priest should itself be high status. If it was, priests wouldn’t feel the urge to fawn over the worldly high status. It’s like all the LGBQ celebration. Apart from the scandal of the Church encouraging sin, if the clergy had any corporate self-respect, maybe they’d say to themselves, “Wait a minute. We’re priests of Jesus Christ, the King of the universe. Why are we currying favor with a bunch of rich, popular perverts?”

      • Priests started to lose their former high status at the same time that Christianity began to lose its unquestioned supremacy as the French Enlightenment began to gain popular traction. Christians are the new Low Men; priests are the exemplary Low Men. It’s a tough row to hoe.

      • Church must be welcoming and inviting to the uninitiated…

        Why? Church is for the faithful, not for the uninitiated.

      • Church is for the faithful (who can say if they are really in this category) and people who are trying to be faithful (“Lord I believe, help my unbelief”). The pews are full of prodigal sons. I try to take the perspective more that I am a prodigal son who is trying to do right by the home that I left, and I try to be less like the loyal brother who stayed.

      • Yes, church is for sinners, but for baptized sinners. That’s all I meant by ‘the faithful’. It is not for the unbaptized. Recall the ancient church would exclude the unbaptized from even observing the liturgy of the sacrament.

        What people typically mean when they say the church should be “welcoming and inviting to the unitiated” is that it should bend over backwards to accommodate the ‘unchurched’, e.g., by removing archaic language (‘thees’ and ‘thous’), removing pericopes that are challenging to modern sensibilities, modifying or eliminating rites to make church more understandable, making it more happy clappy, etc. In other words, to make the liturgy seem less sacred and less ‘other’ so as to make it more comfortable to people who would otherwise find it strange and alien. And thereby denude it of all of its majesty and sublimity.

        This might even make some sense if church were primarily an evangelization tool (and I think this perspective is what drives a lot of the motivation for this sort of thing among modern Christians), but it’s not.

        The demand to be welcoming in this sense also seems unique to Christianity: Islam is a proselytizing religion, but no one demands that it change its prayer rituals from Arabic to English or that it add ‘Muslim rock’ praise bands to its worship services in order to be more appealing to decadent moderns.

  4. Present all this as a battle against evil, for that’s what it is: War. Why is “Lord of the Rings” so popular? Because it reflects the Truth. We are in mortal combat. Tell it like it is. Ask any group of small boys, “Which would you rather have, enemies or overlords?” They will shout “Enemies !” every time. They WANT to fight.

    • A triennial Lenten course on angels, demons, and spiritual war – featuring if possible a guest lecture by the diocesan exorcist (or, if he be a limp wristed sort, who does not really do exorcisms, by an exorcist from a nearby diocese) – would be extremely popular, and salutary. Also a triennial course on the real history of the Church, that focused on disabusing students of the myths promulgated about the Church and history beginning in the Enlightenment. I’m thinking in particular of the true history of the Crusades.

    • Wow. Something BIG just really clicked now in my brain. I always knew Tolkien wanted to express his Christian views in the LOTR in a subtle way, but I thought it is something like “power corrupts” and “vices are corrupted virtues” and so on. So basically personal, individual stuff, not really social stuff.

      It didn’t click before that his most important Christian value that he wanted to express was War Between Good And Evil. And that the Evil you can identify pretty easily in a moral intuitionist way, evil looks evil, smells evil, talks evil.

      This is really BIG. Tolkien had put this War Between Good And Evil into modern fantasy/SF culture. Son in this sense the concept of high fantasy, or epic fantasy. Star Wars and suchlike were built on Tolkien.

      • Ironically, for some time I’ve been considering the War Between Good and Evil to be a sign of unconscious Leftist-Jewish corruption of Tolkien’s mind, grim evidence of the impossibility of even a well-meaning genius to escape the mental confines of his time.

      • To be fair to Tolkien, he was writing during the lead up to WWII. Lots of woggish Southrons and Easterners in view from Britain in those days. Lewis waxed ironic on the topic in That Hideous Strength, wherein he has the villagers irritated at the sudden influx of strange foreigners speaking in barbarous accents, such as … Irishmen. Of which Lewis himself was one such.

        Anyway, it is lots easier to identify the basic problem as that stranger over there – i.e., that scapegoat over there – when there are lots of true enemies at hand, as there were for Britain throughout the 30’s and 40’s … and 50’s … Also it’s lots easier to blame some other than to pluck the beam out of one’s own eye, which is where the real conflict between good and evil transpires.

        That Hideous Strength is a masterful examination of the interaction between the conflicts internal to various agents – within the Studdocks, between the Studdocks, within NICE, between MacPhee and Ransom, and so forth – and the outward conflict between the forces of Good (Merlin, the Fellowship, and the eldila) and those of Evil (NICE and its Head).

        The outer conflict is an echo of the inner, that rives the human heart.

      • J.R.R. Tolkien knew well that good and evil is not always clear cut, but that simply was not the story that he wished to tell. There are three passages in his letters that deal with this:

        From a draft dated November 4, 1954

        “But they were still living on the borders of myth – or rather this story exhibits ‘myth’ passing into History or the Dominion of Men; for of course the Shadow will arise again in a sense (as is clearly fortold by Gandalf), but never again (unless it be before the great end) will an evil daemon be incarnate as a physical enemy; he will direct Men and all the complications of half-evils, and defective half-goods, and the twilights of doubt as to sides, such situations as he most loves (you can see them already arising in the War of the Ring, which is by no means so clear cut an issue as some critics have averred): those will be and are our more difficult fate.

        But if you imagine a people in such a mythical state, in which Evil is largely incarnate, and in which physical resistance to it is a major act of loyalty to God, I think you would have the ‘good people’ in just such a state: concentrated on the negative: the resistance to the false, while ‘truth’ remained more historical and philosophical than religious.”

        From a letter finished May 25, 1944:

        “Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides , of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se! And what it is all about (or ought to be). It is even in this world possible to be (more or less) in the wrong or in the right.”

      • Third passage, from 1956:

        “Of course in ‘real life’ causes are not clear cut – if only because human tyrants are seldom corrupted into pure manifestations of evil will. As far as I can judge some seem to have been so corrupt, but even they must rule subjects only part of whom are equally corrupt, while many still need to have ‘good motives’, real or feigned, presented to them. As we see today. Still there are clear cases: e.g. acts of sheer cruel aggression, in which therefore right is from the beginning wholly on one side, whatever evil the resentful suffering of evil may eventually generate in members of the right side.

        There are also conflicts about important things or ideas. In such cases I am more impressed by the extreme importance of being on the right side, than I am disturbed by the jungle of confused motives, private purposes, and individual actions (noble or base) in which the right and wrong in actual human conflicts are commonly involved. If the conflict really is about things properly called right and wrong, or good and evil, the the rightness or goodness of one side is not proved or established by the claims of either side; it must depend on values and beliefs above and independent of the particular conflict. That being so, the right will remain an inalienable possession of the right side and justify its cause throughout.

        (I speak of causes, not of individuals. Of course to a judge whose moral ideas have a religious or a philosophical basis, or indeed to anyone not blinded by partisan fanaticism, the rightness of the cause will not justify the actions of its supporters, as individuals, that are morally wicked. But though ‘propaganda’ may seize on them as proofs that their cause was not in fact ‘right’, that is not valid. The aggressors are themselves primarily to blame for the evil deeds that proceeded from their original violation of justice and the passions that their own wickedness must naturally (by their standards) have been expected to arouse. “

      • There’s more to the last passge, which I had forgotten about, I’ll quote it because it expands on this topic some more:

        “In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil. Satan fell. In my myth Morgoth fell before Creation of the physical world. In my story, Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tryrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immaterial (angelic) spirit.

        In the Lord of the Rings, the conflict is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved. It is about God and His sole right to divine honour. The Eldar and the Numenoreans believed in The One, the true God, and held worship of any other person an abomination. Sauron desired to be a God-King, and was held to be this by his servants; if he had been victorious he would have demanded divine honour from all rational creatures and absolute temporal power over the whole world. …

        Some critics seem determined to represent me as a simple-minded adolescent, inspired with, say, a With-the-flag-to-Pretoria spirit … I have not that spirit and it does not appear in the story. The figure of Denethor alone is enough to show this; but I have not made any of the peoples on the ‘right’ side, Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or Gondor, any better than men have been or are, or can be. Mine is not an ‘imaginary’ world, but an imaginary historical moment on ‘Middle-Earth’ – which is our habitation.”

      • Thanks, NLR. How blessed we are here, to have such erudite readers! How blessed we are here, indeed, to have such writers, not just as NLR or Bonald – blessing enough, forsooth – but JRR Tolkien himself.

    • Thanks for this link. I just read it. I’m still bewildered that it’s Naomi Wolf — simply amazing — and I think that she’s right. A friend of mine says that the devil now strolls naked through the town square. No need to hide anymore.

  5. These are great suggestions, Kristor, though I wondered how baffled the average, contemporary American would be if he happened to see your list. Our people really have forgotten the taste of bread, the sound of trees, and the softness of the wind.

    Earlier this evening, I read “Who Killed the Catholic University?” by James Keating ( on _First Things_ — I recommend it, sad story though it is, but the decline of Catholic life tells the more fundamental account. The parishes withered . . . and so, of course, the universities rotted. I don’t have a good idea of the disease vector — episcopal negligence and/or malfeasance, perverse seminaries, clerical abuse, lusting after mammon among the elite and the people, aping the heathen by scholar, priest, lord, and peasant alike, whoring after foreign gods . . . there is much blame to go around. But just as infection spread and afflicted many parts of the body, working to heal any of those parts should help the body mend. There is much to be done. Who will do it? We need a miracle, but we do not deserve one.

    • The eschaton is already incipiently immanent in the Church, and via the Incarnation and the ingress of the Holy Spirit. So, the more we conform the Church to the mind of Christ – starting, of course, with our own hearts – the more we magnify and glorify the Name, and so the more we immanentize the eschaton.

      This reflection leads to an interesting distinction, between immanentizing the eschaton in the Name of Christ, versus doing so in the name of some other lesser deity. The latter is the problematic sort.


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