The other night, I watched the old movie The Bells of St. Mary’s and was transported for a time to the world of my youth in which disclosures of the type coming from Ireland would have been inconceivable. When I was a kid, the clergy were the ultimate authority, higher even than parents. Whatever you needed whenever in life, dial “0” for O’Malley.
How far they have fallen.
According to a 2013 article by Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, the number of people seeking a religious vocation in the American and European church has fallen by 3,000 annually. In 1965 there were 45.6 million Catholics and 48,992 seminarians in the United States studying for the priesthood, while in 2006 there were 69.1 million Catholics and only 5,642 seminarians.
Who can blame them? Pedophile priests and baby-killing nuns are poor role models for emulation, tough truths against which to recruit.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once estimated that about one out of three Catholics (33%) have a vocation to the religious life. Yet today, less one in every twenty-thousand Catholics (0.005%) are consecrated as priests, brothers, and nuns. These statistics, if even remotely accurate, help us to better understand the difficulty Catholics face today when discerning a religious vocation.
In the 1950s boys were still entering the seminarian life aged twelve or thirteen, before they had ever experienced adult life. In some, maybe many cases they were leaving a mildly or grossly dysfunctional family. But they didn’t talk about this. Most were not aware their family was dysfunctional but many had an alcoholic parent or one with a psychological illness. Like most people in dysfunctional families they thought their experience was normal. They thought all families were like that. Almost all came from poorer families.
In the US, there are 39,718 priests, 17,816 deacons, 4,518 brothers, and 55,045 sisters according to the 2012 edition of the Official Catholic Directory.
Today there is a baseline belief among young men that it’s unnatural for men to be celibate. The practice, it is believed, contributes to homosexuality and pedophilia in the priesthood. In one religious order, the Jesuits, the number of resulting religious vocations bodes ill for the future.According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of Jesuits worldwide increased from 1910 to the mid-to-late 1960s, growing from 16,000 to just over 36,000. Beginning in the 1970s, the population began to decline. Now, there are about 17,000 Jesuits worldwide. CARA estimates there are about 3,000 Jesuits currently serving in the US. That’s just one order, and a popular one.
The number of women, too, pursuing vocations has declined since the post-World War II era, when many orders experienced booms. In general, there was core practice of religion in those days. Everybody went to mass on Sunday, and a more stable or predictable family life probably had a lot to do with it.
It is ironic that Bing Crosby’s public facade was as much at odds with the private reality as if he had been a priest. Son Gary Crosby has famously written after his father’s death in 1977 that the real Bing Crosby was a cruel, cold, remote, and both physically and psychologically abusive parent.
“When I saw Going My Way I was as moved as they were by the character he played. Father O’Malley handled that gang of young hooligans in his parish with such kindness and wisdom that I thought he was wonderful too. Instead of coming down hard on the kids and withdrawing his affection, he forgave them their misdeeds, took them to the ball game and picture show, taught them how to sing. By the last reel, the sheer persistence of his goodness had transformed even the worst of them into solid citizens. Then the lights came on and the movie was over. All the way back to the house I thought about the difference between the person up there on the screen and the one I knew at home.”
No one argues with statistics. In the US, candidates for the religious priesthood from 1966-67 to 1973-74 have dropped over 50%; candidates for women’s religious communities from 1965 to 1972 dropped 87%.
I am no believer, but I nevertheless mourn the religious life and regret the skepticism that must accompany any judgment of a young person’s desire to pursue a religious vocation. I’m afraid it’s a fraud. I miss the assumption of the kindly priest or saintly nun. And I miss the version of Bing Crosby that appeared on the screen, and being able to dial “0” for O’Malley.
Groove of the Day