In October 2001 during my first meeting with the priests of our Diocese, I was asked by one priest, “What are you going to do about the priest shortage?’ I responded then as I did again recently, “I will never speak about a ‘priest shortage’. It is a negative approach and does not address the reality in a correct way.”
I said that then and I repeat it today. Does that mean that “I have my head in the sand” or that I do not know how to count? No. not really. If anyone in our Diocese knows the number of priests and the number of faithful and the number of parishes it is I. I work with these every day of my life. I also am well aware that when I was ordained 50 years ago, we had more newly ordained than we have today. I know we lost many priests from active ministry in the 70s and 80s, a fact which, thank God – and that is the correct phrase – has dwindled to very few which is a sign of renewal and a product of more prayer and better formation of future priests at our seminaries today. I also know how many priests I had to remove from active ministry because of credible charges against them in my first two years here. So, yes I know the statistics quite well.
What I also know is that the numbers are not the story. They are one element of the picture we must face together as we seek to provide for the pastoral needs of the people of God. For this we must use all our resources as best we can: spiritual first of all, personal, second of all and material, third of all.
Let’s go back to the term. Why will I not use it? It is negative. Very often how you phrase a question prejudices one’s ability to respond to the reality behind the question. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the classic example. Here too, the term, “priest shortage” connotes a crisis and places an artificial pall over the challenge of living our lives as Christ’s Church. It implies that our life as Church is in a precarious situation or being threatened by statistics. I don’t accept that. It is a misnomer because it distracts us from seeing the pastoral challenges in their full and accurate light.
Let me be concrete. Fifty years ago, as a priest, I did all kinds of things in a parish that today are rightly done by the lay faithful or the staff. I also did things like set up chairs and take them down after a parish meeting; make sure the coffee urn was prepared; count the money by hand; register the envelopes by hand on a chart; do the shopping; shovel the snow. You get the picture.
More importantly and positively we have permanent deacons, lay ministries, parish staffs, automated and computerized means of communicating, teaching and forming people in so many ways.
Unfortunately we also have fewer couples marrying in the Church, fewer persons coming regularly to the sacrament of penance, and, most importantly, fewer coming to Sunday Mass which is still a matter of obligation because worshipping God is incumbent on every human being, which for us Catholics means Sunday Mass. The Eucharist alone gives us the means to live as Christ calls us to live and we need to encourage the faithful to join us at Sunday Mass every Sunday! That should be a wake-up call to us all — bishop, priest, deacon, religious and lay faithful — that we have to get out and evangelize. That is precisely the reason for my three recent pastoral letters: Belong More Deeply; You too go into the Vineyard; The Harvest is Plenty!
Our priests all work hard. I know that. You know that. With my Vicars and with the help of the 14 deans, we do our best to encourage and affirm the priests who have long hours, are constantly on call and do their best, often being asked to go beyond what would be expected normally from any human being. Yet that is what they promised to do at the time of their ordination. And while they may often get tired, even discouraged and disappointed, like St. Paul, they are never defeated, they never lose hope and they are never without a friend because the Lord sustains them. And we have to sustain them as well. We need to recognize they are human and, while they bring Christ to you and you to Christ, they need the human words of encouragement and appreciation and the understanding of us all when they rightfully need a break, a change of venue or just a little peace and quiet.
My task as their brother priest and your bishop is to do my best to provide priests for you and provide enough of them for the pastoral needs of the people. The last time I was one-on-one with Saint John Paul was in 2004 at the Ad Limina visit, he asked me, “Do you have sufficient priests?” I answered him by asking first, “Is it permissible to quote the Pope to the Pope?” He smiled when I said, “Holy Father, you wrote last Spring to all us priests telling us ‘there will never be sufficient priests for the announcing of the Gospel and the pastoral care of the People of God’.” His last words before he blessed me were, “Good for you! Good for you!”
So what practically do we do? First, we encourage vocations to priesthood here in our Diocese. The vocation directors who have assisted me in this have done splendid work and the quality of these new priests is superior in every respect. They join the ranks of some of the most dedicated, holy and great priests I have ever known: your priests here on Long Island. Pray for vocations and encourage young men to consider the priesthood! I do all the time.
Second, we have to assign the priests carefully and with respect both to their own strengths and the make-up of the parish. That is not always easy and sometimes it does not work out. By far, most of the time it does work, thanks to God’s grace and the good will and open hearts of priests and faithful.
Third, we simply do not have enough vocations to the priesthood coming from the families of Long Island to serve the families of Long Island. But the Church is Catholic. The same generosity which led to the formation of Maryknoll and the Paulists in our country has enabled us to seek help from other countries where the bishops and religious superiors have made priests available to work in our Diocese. As I did when I first went to Italy, they too need to learn our culture, our ways, and also that very special reality: our language or at least our version of it. You have welcomed them and I am very grateful to their superiors and to the priests from other countries for their generosity toward us.
I will continue to pray constantly and make every human effort to fulfill my responsibility to you all so long as I am able to serve this Church I love in imitation of Christ, the bridegroom, who loves the Church, His bride.
We all are called to be one in Him, to pray and support one another, to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, and to give a witness to the world of God’s love made manifest in this blessed and beautiful Church of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. May Mary, the Mother of the Church, watch over us and guide us to belong more deeply to her Son, the Church and one another.