Today is Vocations Sunday. Our priest gave us the depressing news (well, it was news to me) that there will be no priests ordained in the Dublin diocese this year. He also mentioned that two Dublin men entered the seminary this year-- which is better than nothing, but there's no guarantee that they will actually become priests in seven years.
The dearth of vocations is definitely the most depressing part of being an Irish Catholic today. Vocations are so rare now that a new vocation to the priesthood, diaconate, or an order of nuns or friars is a news story in the Irish Catholic newspaper.
Our parish priest today raised the matter of clerical celibacy in his homily. He said that he thought priests should be allowed to marry, but that he personally couldn't imagine combining family life with his responsibilites as a priest. I wonder why he thinks other priests would be able to do so.
I am entirely opposed to the abolition of priestly celibacy. I know that even many conservative Catholics like John Haldane have made the case for married priests. (See here.) However, I think this concession would be a terrible mistake.
People sometimes claim that clerical celibacy was only introduced in the eleventh century, sometimes adding the claim that it was all to do with inheritance rights. But the truth is that clerical celibacy was the ideal from the early centuries of Christianity (there was a proposal to make it mandatory at the First Council of Nicea in 325) and Popes made strong efforts to enforce it for many centuries before the First Latern Council in 1123, when the discipline was firmly established.
Vocations are actually going up in England and America. The director of vocations for England, Fr Christopher Jamison, was quoted in The Catholic Herald last week as saying: "Celibacy is not something that young men...say is their biggest obstacle on the path to priesthood."
Celibacy emphasises the specialness of the priestly vocation. It ensures that only men fully committed to the faith and willing to make great personal sacrifices for it will enter the priesthood. It allows priests to focus more fully upon their calling. And it gains tremendous respect from secular cuture, even when that respect comes in the disguised forms of sneers and mockery and criticism.
I sincerely believe it would be better for Catholics in the West to have to travel long distances to attend Mass than it would be to abolish clerical celibacy. Perhaps we would prize priests and the priesthood and the sacraments more than we do if our access to them was less easy.
How, then, do we reverse the decline in vocations?
Above all, by prayer. Every practicing Catholic in Ireland should pray for new vocations every single day.
But we should also help encourage more vocations by being more vocal about our faith, more willing to talk to people about it, and more evangelistic. I never agree with the people who say that faith should be a private matter. Surely every vocation begins in the imagination-- by the imagination being fired in childhood or in the teenage years, most probably. How will boys and young men be drawn towards the priesthood if they see Catholicism as a kind of hobby or social club? But if they witness that the Catholic faith is the most important thing in the lives of grown-up people they admire, then they will also see it as something to be taken very seriously, something worthy of a life's work.
Prayer and profession, not panic. That is the way to go.
(It should go without saying that this is simply the opinion of a Catholic layman, with no theological training whatsoever.)