I remember looking in a yearbook from my alma mater high school from its inaugural graduating class of 1965. I was shocked at the fact that almost all of the teaching faculty were priests and religious sisters. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school that I had a priest teacher, and he was the first we’d had at our school in about a decade.
I can’t describe the impact it had on my class. Several students who had manifested either total indifference or actual revulsion to the faith up to that point began to not only be interested but even became passionate about the search for truth and the desire for virtue.
At that point, I was seriously considering a priestly vocation. Within that call, I developed a great desire to provide to future generations what had mostly been lacking in my own religious education up to that point. I remember one of my religion instructors saying to the class his credentials: already a teacher in a different subject, they asked if there was someone who attended Sunday Mass regularly, and he said “Yes” and they gave him the job.
I describe the sort of religious education that young people often receive at Catholic schools as “Catholic Inoculation.” Just as a medical inoculation introduces some of the disease into a person in order to form a resistance to it, so the Catholic school that is thin in religious identity give students just enough religion to make students sure they want no part of it.
A full-time priest of the right disposition counteracts that inoculation by introducing a passionate and educated incarnate reality to the student body.
This is certainly and often provided by well-formed lay instructors as well. Yet the radicality of seeing a priest, one who is fully given over to the life of faith, who has rejected the secular spirit of total independence, and yet, who is still like them, provides a great avenue of possibilities for a student to encounter Jesus Christ in a whole new way. (I will deal with the sadly more complicated reality of female religious vocations in a future article.)
Our diocese reintroduced the tradition of having priest instructors at a critical juncture of our history. One of the main sources of vocations was the traditionally large farm family, but societal trends moved in a new direction. Rural life yielded to larger towns. Our vocation numbers were shrinking. Nevertheless, one bishop after another—of quite different theological emphases and personalities—remained committed to placing priests as instructors in our Catholic schools.
This was a truly wise investment. Of the priests ordained in the last decade, the grand majority has come from our Catholic schools. We now have 25 seminarians in a diocese of 60,000 Catholics. Again, most have come either from our Catholic high schools, or our Catholic university, which currently has three diocesan priests and one religious priest assigned to it.
Quantitative value is not the true measure of grace. Yet it reveals some aspect of the non-mysterious aspect of priestly vocations and indeed, simply the possibility that in our secular age, talented and successful young people might actually make the choice of living the full, Catholic faith.
“Where do priests come from?” I sometimes jokingly ask people. “Other people’s kids,” I give as a humorous but all too real answer. The privileged place of inspiring vocations is the home and the parish; I myself first felt my vocational call there.
Yet in our age, given the fact that the home isn’t the primary source of priestly vocations as it should be, it is the job of the priest to beget other priests. St. Paul VI famously said that our modern society doesn’t trust mere teachers. Instead, people need witnesses, and only then will their teaching possibly resonate.
Young men need young priests to reveal to them that Holy Orders is an actual lived reality and an authentic possibility for their lives. The ideal priest to be assigned to a high school is a young, energetic, intelligent and light-hearted man who is passionate about the fullness of Catholicity and orthodox teaching tempered by the mercy of Jesus Christ, because he himself knows how that mercy has worked in his life.
Naturally, this sort of priest is one that a bishop would like to place in his parishes and chancery as soon as possible. However, it is such a prudent investment that these priests could be not immediately used as stopgap supply, and instead offered as a sacrifice for the lives of young people, who are bombarded by so many harmful messages from the surrounding culture.
Teaching is certainly challenging. Yet it is the daily grind, the intense interaction in the classroom—sometimes joyful, sometimes critical and demanding—that forms a true relationship between priest and student, that a mere priest chaplain does not enjoy.
Now that I am a teacher, there are certainly days when I put my head in my hands and wonder if we can resist the secular culture. But vastly more are the moments of grace that shock me of how much an impact my predecessors and I can make, by God’s grace, in conjunction with the great lay staff, on today’s students.
That’s enough writing for now… I have to go take 14 senior boys on a visit to my alma mater college seminary.