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Is the Vocation Crisis a Myth?

Question: Are you worried about the declining ranks of priests?

Thomas Joseph White: I think that one thing to keep in mind is that the priest to layperson ratio in the church, while it has changed and there are less priests, there’s also less people practicing the faith.

I think that in the 1950s, two-thirds of Catholics regularly attended Mass, and today it’s one-third. So the number of people that the priests have to minister to has gone down.

I am not at all convinced that we have a crisis of shortage of priests in the United States. I think that people, at least in the East of the Mississippi, have no trouble receiving the sacraments if they want them. 

In the end, you have to ask yourself, "Do you think that there are basic principles involving priesthood celibacy that are spiritually positive and beneficial for the church? And would we, if we traded that good, for the good of married priests also be wedding ourselves to a whole new set of social and anthropological difficulties?"

The truth of the matter is, in our own civic society, there are a lot of instances of crisis in marriage. And there’s no real naïve reason; it’d be naïve to think that those problems would not enter into the parish setting if we had married priests.

What I see is a resurgence of young people who are certainly a counterculture and a minority, but very interested in the faith. From where I’m sitting in my 30s, I’m seeing people in their 20s that are very committed.

And I don’t think we’re going in the same direction in terms of secularization as a lot of the European countries. I think that there’s a sort of significant substantial and very proactive subculture of young Catholics in America. It’s kind of encouraging.

Question: Should the requirements to become a priest be relaxed?

Thomas Joseph White: Well, no. I don’t think the standards to reach the priesthood should be relaxed. The priesthood is a mystery of grace. Now when you talk about grace, you are outside the domain of what we can immediately physically demonstrate to exist. But grace is something very real and very concrete that acts in people’s lives. And the priesthood is only possible by God’s grace. And even with God’s grace, it requires a sacred cooperation from a human being. It ennobles the human being if they cooperate faithfully with that vocation.

And I would say, although some of the worst people I’ve met in my life are priests, for the most part, the best people I’ve met in my life are often Catholic priests and Catholic religious nuns and sisters.

It’s a very high calling. It’s a very difficult calling. But the beauty of it is the nobility. It is the sacrificial aspect.

If you take away the sacrifice, I think that you take away, in a certain sense, the standard to which the human being is called.

We’re not mediocre beings. I mean, we’re made for something very glorious and very great in the spiritual dimension of ourselves. And I think the priesthood is an attempt to maintain that calling in human existence of radically sacrificial action. That we don’t arrive at doing it that well in many cases. Well that’s too bad. But in a way, sometimes we do. Sometimes some of them do. But in many cases, it’s very important to have the goal.

If you lose all idealism; the world has enough cynicism. We’re fine at being cynical. We need to tend towards the higher ideal and be called toward it.

Question: Do you have stories about the worst people in you life being priests?

Thomas Joseph White: No, I don’t have stories. What I just mean; I’m exaggerating when I say some of the worst people I’ve met are priests.

Maybe I should re-characterize that.  But I would say this. The human free will is left on a long leash by God. And there’s nothing that God has given to other human beings that he hasn't given to the priest, including free will.

So the priest can be lazy, the priest can neglect his duties. The priest is capable of moral compromises. But our society likes to point out the failings of priests and in some ways that's normal and healthy and it's a good reminder that we need to reform ourselves. That's fair, in a way.

But in another sense, it can be a little blindsided because we need to see that there are incredible people in the religious life, in the priesthood.

Question: When did you find your calling to become a priest?

Thomas Joseph White: Well I’m a convert and I was not baptized as a child.

I’m from an inter-religious background. My father’s Jewish. My mother’s Presbyterian.

I just had religious and philosophical questions in college. And just started reading.  I started reading Christian but also other religious theoretical writing, Buddhism and Hinduism. And little by little, I got very interested in Christian theology. And my personal experience was I was at Brown University and I was in the basement of the science library one day, at the term of some of this period of searching, and I was reading a book by a theologian. And I suddenly; I think I would say I received the gift of faith. I just had this very strong sense of the presence of the person, Jesus Christ. And I suddenly knew he was real.

And it was very strange because until that point, the question wasn’t, by no means, resolvable for me. And so I sought baptism. And then I spent some years studying early Christianity and the history of Christian thought and gravitated towards Roman Catholicism.

Recorded on: August 20, 2009.

According to Father Thomas Joseph White, the shortage of priests in America is not one of the major sources of religious crisis. The important thing is to maintain strict standards, such as celibacy, for the priesthood in order to reinforce the sacredness of the vocation. He also tells the story of his own calling to the priesthood.

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