“The faithful expect only one thing from priests: that they be specialists in promoting the encounter between man and God. The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life.” – Pope emeritus Benedict XVI
When I was a young boy, there were very few of us in my neighborhood who did not have his own “vestments” and furnishings to celebrate “Mass” in our homes. Playing priest was simply part of growing up on the Catholic southside of Chicago. Then again, I think playing priest was part of the life experience of many Catholic boys in those days. Many of us grew up to see our make-believe become reality.
So much in the Church has changed in those sixty years or so. I don’t know if kids still play priest or if so many challenging twists and turns have made it a bit more difficult in today’s world to imagine the thought of being a priest for real.
I believe that many seminarians in today’s culture are, in fact, beginning to take their faith much more seriously and are striving to find the balance between responding to “the call” and merely fantasizing about it.
Men of college age (mid-twenties) on up to late thirties particularly are considering the prospects of priesthood more and more seriously. They seem to understand the urgency for such a lifestyle in today’s world—a turning away from materialism, promiscuity, and self-indulgence—but the cloud of fear and doubt about their own ability to genuinely live such a life continues to offer a personal challenge. Of course, the shadow of the abuse scandal, ecclesiastical discipline (obedience and celibacy), and societal expectations offer a different array of points for pondering, prayer, and discernment.
As any Catholic, male or female, considers the importance of the priesthood in today’s society, one cannot help but understand that the Church Herself is pondering, praying, and discerning in a new era. The Church, as we know, is organic—continually changing and growing—bringing the Gospel, ever-old and ever-new, to a new age of people in need of hearing the message. So it is for those whom She welcomes into the priesthood. The Church is very much aware of the mistakes and sins of the past—She is eager to make amends and not see those same mistakes and sins repeated.
Seminaries have become proving grounds for the kinds of priests necessary for the current age and beyond. Human formation, as it is called, has become just as important as academic, spiritual, and pastoral formation in advancement to ordination. Today’s seminarians are exposed to psychological, social, and peer evaluations, in addition, spiritual and personal development round out some rather rigorous areas of formation and education.
“In the midst of that same humanity, Jesus calls His own to various kinds of service in the Church. Those whom He calls to the priesthood are still a unique and special fraternity, the forefront of the mission and evangelical effort of Christ and His Church in the world.”
I have been a priest for forty-one years, and the Church and the world have indeed changed since I used to “play” priest almost sixty years ago. The complexities of human life have changed dramatically from those days—an Ecumenical Council, a Sexual Revolution, technological-medical upheavals and developments, street riots, cultural and gender shifts, and on and on. In the middle of it all stands Our Mother, the Church, the Spotless Bride of Christ, always standing to love and welcome Her Children who have been redeemed by Her Son, our Blessed Lord.
In the midst of that same humanity, Jesus calls His own to various kinds of service in the Church. Those whom He calls to the priesthood are still a unique and special fraternity, the forefront of the mission and evangelical effort of Christ and His Church in the world. In ten years of being a bishop, I have ordained thirty-five priests. As the Bishop of La Crosse for the past eight years, I have had the privilege and honor of ordaining eighteen of that total for service in our beloved Diocese, with the most recent being Fr. Kyle Laylan and Fr. Barry Saylor. I cannot even begin to formulate the appropriate words of thanks for Fr. Alan Wierzba, our Diocesan Vocation Director and his assistant for the past year, Fr. Billy Dodge (now serving as Pastoral Administrator at Roncalli Newman Parish). I thank the priests, deacons, and Consecrated Religious of our Diocese for being so welcoming to those who consider Church vocations. I am especially grateful to all of the Faithful men and women of our Diocese who pray for and support our seminarians. God has blessed us with many fine priests—please join me in giving thanks to God for them each day!
By Bishop William Patrick Callahan,
is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse