At one time, the Diocese of Scranton didn’t need to do much to get men to consider the priesthood. There were hundreds of religious sisters in dozens of Catholic schools daily reminding thousands of students from first grade up that a religious life was a real option.
The seminary in Dalton was near the 120-room capacity with seminarians.
There were more than twice as many parishes in the 11-county diocese, many with multiple priests to handle robust membership.
Those days are long gone. The seminary closed in 2004 after enrollment dropped to single digits. The number of parishes and schools has been roughly halved from the halcyon days. The decline of priests and religious sisters — particularly those still active in parish life — has been even more precipitous. For years, the diocese has predicted the number of parish priests will likely slip below 100 by 2025 or sooner.
Despite the reduction of parishes from about 231 in 1950 to 120 in recent years, that would still leave one-fifth of parishes without a dedicated priest, and the trend has already become visible to adherents. The number of churches headed by a “parish life coordinator” rather than a priest has continued to grow since the first such official was installed in 2015.
The diocese has also seen a dramatic shift from ordination of priests to ordination of permanent deacons. June 9 marked the first ordination of priests in two years, and both times only two men underwent the rite. By comparison, Bishop Joseph Bambera has found himself regularly ordaining deacons at higher numbers. In 2017, no priests were ordained while 11 deacons were.
Far from hiding the changes, Bambera embraced them. In April 2015, Catholics throughout the diocese saw a recorded homily from Bambera outlining the decline and acknowledging the need to shift parish leadership in coming years. He called for dialogue sessions that would let church officials and parishioners face the issue together.
Since then, the diocese has been searching for ways to put the priesthood back on the radar for more people as a possible vocation, an effort arguably epitomized by the annual “St. John Vianney Vocations Golf Classic” coming up July 9 at Blue Ridge Trail Golf Club in Mountain Top.
This is the ninth year for a fundraising event that never would have been considered necessary two decades ago. “Over the last several years, they’ve raised close to $700,000 or so,” the Rev. Donald Williams said. As director of vocations and seminarians for the diocese, Williams chairs the event, as well as overseeing many other efforts to plant the idea of priesthood in more men’s minds.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to create some opportunities with the office of parish life and the vocation office to engage with young people,” Williams said. Those efforts include forming discernment groups to help men figure out if the priesthood is a good fit, monthly worship and praise retreats, and increased collaboration with area Catholic colleges and universities.
“We’re trying to give good information on the life and formation of a priest, but also on how to pray and how to discern what God wants.”
‘Young people searching’
The effort has paid off, at least a little. The diocese currently has 12 men in formation, more than double the number when Bambera became bishop in 2010. Eleven of those men will be at the tournament (one is in Omaha as part of his training). They are encouraged to come, both to give people a chance to meet the men in formation and to let those men “say thank you” for the financial assistance the tournament provides.
The money raised “helps with vocational education, some helps with promotion of vocations, some is going to help eradicate a person’s educational debt,” Williams said. “We’re trying to support the guys. We don’t want anyone to stay back from responding to the calling.”
The effort to recruit priests these days tends to focus more on helping the individual, Williams said. In going around and talking to younger people, a common thread emerged.
“Some people say this is the Me Generation, but young people at the core are good. They are searching,” he said. “We did listening sessions and asked people to talk about their experiences growing up, their challenges, and what can we as the church do to help.”
“Young people today are having a challenging time committing to anything — their marriage, their careers, their majors. There’s a lot of different research pointing to this,” Williams said. Couple that with a decrease in family participation in religious faith, and “sometimes people are not asking ‘Lord, what do you want me to do for you?’”
One goal is simply to get more people to consider that question, Williams said, “To look for what Pope Francis said is a call to intentional discipleship.”
That applies to the church attitude regarding recruitment of priests. “The spirit is moving people in different directions,” Williams said “For us that’s a good thing.” Those serving the religious life, whether priests, deacons or lay, are bringing more diverse backgrounds to the job, helping the church connect with more people in better ways.
“I think of quality, not quantity. Do we have as many as we want and need? No,” Williams added. “But we have good guys in formation who are discerning.” The two men just ordained — one at age 29, the other at age 65 — “are wonderful men and good for us.”
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish