By PAUL A. BARRA
CHARLESTON — Parishes and schools across the Diocese of Charleston are celebrating National Vocations Awareness Week Jan. 11-18. Father Joseph Maher of the Church of the Nativity on James Island was prompted to address the issue in his Sunday homily.
“They tell me if I don’t talk on this I’ll be fired,” the priest said.
Father Maher also talked about the shortage of priests and sisters locally, citing the return of the circuit riding sacramental priest in some areas. He called on parents to plant the seeds of vocations in their children’s lives, and for people to listen for the call.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ is calling out, silently and vocally, inviting people to respond to a vocation in the Church,” he said. “There are vocations walking around; they need to be recognized.”
The vicar for vocations for the diocese, Father Henry T. Barron, called on parents to show respect for the priesthood and religious life in the home and to increase their own holiness and involvement in the church.
“That way, children will see vocations within the Church as an option. One of the main problems with (recruiting) is that today’s culture does not promote a readiness to self-sacrifice and surrender. Parents must instill that in their children,” he said. “I believe that for many of us, our vocations were nurtured in the home.”
Seminarians in the Diocese of Charleston are too few to replace the priests who will retire around the turn of the century. According to Lisa Horner, administrative assistant to the diocesan Office of the Vicar for Vocations, there are 11 men now studying in seminaries for the diocese. Father Barron agreed that the numbers are down; he said that the diocese has taken a number of positive steps to relieve the pending shortfall. Father Dennis Willey of the Vocations Office held a successful retreat in the fall and is planning another one. Vocations will also be a topic of discussion at the annual state youth conference in March and a vocations retreat for high school youth is being considered.
“We’ve also scheduled a vocations conference for May 6 in Columbia,” Horner said. “It will be primarily educational in nature.”
She said that Bishop Paul Loverde, the chair of the Vocations Committee of the United States Catholic Conference, will be the featured speaker. Her office will issue an open invitation to the May 6 conference, but it will be specifically directed to priests, campus ministers, directors of religious education and parish vocations committees.
Parish vocations committees are a growing concept in South Carolina. More than 30 have formed and some are active with creative ideas. Horner said that some parishes have celebrated Holy Hours for vocations; CCD students at Our Lady of the Valley in Gloverville wrote letters to diocesan seminarians. Father Barron said the diocese has asked all 86 parishes and 27 missions in the Diocese of Charleston to establish parish vocations committees. Missions and smaller parishes will set them up on the cluster level.
The vicar for vocations said that his office is also working through the diocesan schools to foster awareness of vocations. Packets with lesson plans went out to faculties for this week’s National Vocations Awareness events.
But the search for vocations is not limited to local talent. Father Barron said that some nations, such as Ghana, have more priests than they need; he is looking for contacts in those places to help him set up recruitment trips.
The vicar sees the Diocesan Vocations Board as another bright light in the dark. Established last year with lay members, the board has revised the seminarian handbook and has improved the formation program.
With only 67 active diocesan priests in the state and a high average age — and 11 men training to become priests — the outlook is for even more priestless parishes in the near future. But positive steps are underway to improve the situation.
Nothing will change the overall picture, the diocesan vicar for vocations said, unless children learn from their parents’ attitude that a life’s work can be more than a career and that being a priest or sister or brother or deacon can be a successful way to live.
Father Maher said it best: “The pay is lousy, but the benefits and blessings are overflowing.”