In the parish where I work we are very fortunate to have three full-time priests, so we have no explicit reason to claim that we are suffering from the shortage of clergy. It makes itself felt, however, in subtle ways. One of those ways is in the culture of Mass intentions, which are filled up here about six months in advance. As the years have gone by and the number of regular Masses has decreased (though we still celebrate eighteen a week here, plus an average of two funerals and half a wedding) and the reform of the liturgy has ended the "side altar" Mass, the demand for Mass intentions has not decreased at the same rate. So many times I have rescued one of the poor kids who answers our phone and door in the evening from someone who is irate that they can't have a Mass said for their deceased loved one anytime soon.
But how many of these irate souls have ever encouraged their own sons or other young men in their life to consider the call to the priesthood? Not many, I would guess. That's where the clergy shortage ends up in its most unpleasant illogic: you can't expect the ministry of priests on demand while not encouraging priestly vocations.
But am I a hypocrite in this criticism I have just made? Yes, at least to some degree. Seeing a young man, an outstanding altar server or a thoughtful religion student perhaps, do I try to plant the seed of a vocation? Like a lot of my brother priests, and even among those who are happy, I think I am also hesitant. Why? I've thought a lot about this, because my hesitancy surprised me at first. If I am grateful for my own vocation and find a lot of joy and redemption in it, why would I not recommend it to another, even on just the human level?
I remember when I was a senior in college and I was first thinking about a vocation to religious life. There was an ex-seminarian, a philosophy major like myself, who heard about it and said, "Best of luck with your vocation." I hardly knew him, but it was a big moment for me to have someone simply say those words, "your vocation," and make it real for me. So why am I hesitant to do that for someone else?
I hesitate to recommend the secular priesthood to anyone for two reasons. First, because I don't feel like I really know anything about it. I don't know what it's like to go to a diocesan seminary or grow up attached to a specific local church. Second, the morale of the secular clergy--at least where I live--seems pretty low. For example, without something to fall back upon like a religious community perhaps, they are one accusation away from being on the street without a home, a salary, or a pension.
But what about religious life and/or priesthood within a religious community? Since this is my own vocation, for which I am exceedingly grateful to God and for those who have encouraged and helped me along the way, why am I also hesitant here? I think that it's because, though this is a beautiful life full of fine challenges and wide opportunity, it is a very hazardous life on the spiritual level. I have no doubt that if there is anyone in hell at all, there is a good proportion of religious and clergy. This life is a beautiful and well-beaten path of Christian discipleship, and it has been proven in its power to make saints, but religious life can also make you worse. In some cases, I think people end up worse for their religious life than they would have been if they had stayed in the world. This is because, at least in the mainstream, North American religious life that I know, you don't have some of the spiritual safeguards that secular people enjoy. For instance, in secular life you don't have the option of deciding you don't want to work for a living, but in religious life this sometimes happens, and a priest or lay religious becomes miserable in their idleness and infects the rest of the community with the rotten luxury of their laziness. Other religious, lacking the give and take of close relationships, which keeps a lot of ordinary people from becoming entirely self-centered, start to believe all the praise they receive and become the sort of narcissistic little kings that make people think there is something the matter with religion. Others simply get comfortable and complacent, performing religious functions while they pursue bourgeois values and middle class goals.
Now I'm not saying that this happens to everyone, or that there aren't genuine saints that you meet frequently in the course of religious life. But I do think that the reason I am hesitant to recommend this life to potential vocations is that the spiritual hazards of this life are real, intense, and in your face all the time. Worse, it has been my experience of religious life and ministry that we as religious or priests do not know how to challenge each other to avoid or work ourselves out of these pitfalls. So I don't know what I would do if I encouraged someone to join up and I saw his soul ruined by it. But doesn't that make me the man who buried his talent?