This Sunday, will mark the 17th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. I was ordained on October 28, 1995, by the Most Reverend Attila Mikloshazy, S.J., Bishop for the Pastoral Care of Hungarian Emigrants and also Dean and Professor of Liturgy and Historical Theology at St. Augustine’s Seminary, Toronto. The ordination took place at St. Peter’s Church, the Paulist parish in Toronto. Five years later, in 2000, after serving as Associate Pastor at St. Peter’s and as Associate Director of the Paulist Center for Catholic Evangelization in Toronto, I returned “home” to New York City, where I served for 10 years (under four different pastors) as Associate Pastor at the Paulist “Mother Church,” St. Paul the Apostle in mid-town Manhattan. Then in 2010 I was appointed 24th pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish here in Knoxville. (The above photo is from the 2012 Chrism Mass at Knoxville's Sacred Heart Cathedral).
It has been an amazingly wonderful 17 years. Like most priests, I would not wish any other career for myself (although my brief, earlier “first career” as a political scientist was in its own way certainly also an experience worth having had). Like most priests, I probably find my greatest joy in celebrating the sacraments and faciitating parish life. In fact, recent studies have shown that over 90% of priests agree that they are happy as priests, and over 80% say that their morale is good. Those are good numbers for any profession!
Yes, the priesthood is a very satisfying vocation. That is certainly a good thing, given that the priesthood is so central to the Church’s life and so essential to its mission. Yet, as we all know, the overall number of priests has been declining and their average age increasing in recent decades, even as the number of Catholics has continued to grow. In 1965, there was one priest for about every 800 Catholic lay people. By 2007, it was one priest for every 1550. Nationwide, ordinations are about one-third what would be needed each year to keep the number of priests constant - not to increase the number of priests to meet the growing needs, but just to keep the number constant! Meanwhile, the Catholic population in the U.S. continues to grow – in absolute numbers, although not as a percentage of the population. The growth in the American Catholic population has been largely the result of immigration, which has counterbalanced the opposite tendency of many American Catholics to abandon the faith. The result is that the percentage of Catholics in American society has managed to remain relatively constant at about 24%.
This is certainly a challenging time for the Church. Certainly we need to look realistically at these issues and not ignore them, but we must also approach the challenges of our day with genuine confidence in God’s presence and action in our world. In its own way, every time in the Church’s history has been a challenging time. Our immigrant ancestors experienced enormous challenges in what was, at best, a new and alien environment and, at worst, sometimes a very hostile one. Yet they met those challenges – building strong neighborhood parishes, an amazing parochial school network, and an incredible complex of social and charitable institutions. Today’s challenges are different and call for different responses, but they need to be met with the same faith and hope that inspired our predecessors to meet the needs of their time – so that, like Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, we may live and work “in the dawning light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church.”