Vocations Document Seems to Ignore Successes in North America

Montreal Summit Planned for April

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MONTREAL, JAN. 7, 2002 (Zenit.org).- A summit of Catholic vocations leaders in North America will be held here this spring, ostensibly to find new ways to attract people to the priesthood, religious and consecrated life.

But the working document of the Third Continental Congress on Vocations to the Ordained Ministry and Consecrated Life has raised eyebrows — mainly because it seems to overlook the success stories of dioceses and congregations that have been attracting vocations, reports the National Catholic Register in its Jan. 6 edition.

It was news to Sister Catherine Marie Hopkins, for instance, to read the document´s contention that no congregations have more candidates than they can comfortably accommodate.

Sister Catherine Marie is the vocations director of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, in Nashville, Tennessee. The Nashville Dominicans have 200 sisters, and of the 18 that joined in 2001, a dozen have to use sleeping bags until more living space is built. Many sisters have to stand outside the chapel during the Mass and Liturgy of the Hours.

«We are literally out of room,» said Sister Catherine Marie.

The April 18-21 congress in Montreal is expected to attract some 1,200 people, including vocations directors, bishops, educators, campus and youth ministers, young adults, young religious, parents, pastors, formators and members of secular institutes. The congress is being held at the invitation of John Paul II and follows similar events for Latin America (Sao Paolo, 1994) and Europe (Rome, 1997).

The Montreal summit aims to establish a positive environment for promoting vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life in the United States and Canada, where, the report states, there are «more Catholics to serve with fewer ordained ministers to serve them.»

Regional or diocesan vocations congresses are being held throughout the two countries, and input from these sessions will be used in the Montreal congress. Ultimately, planners hope to issue a document they envision as the foundation for a pastoral plan to be adopted by bishops, pastors and vocations ministers throughout North America.

The working document for the congress says that the shortage of Church vocations «remains evident in the places and spaces waiting for candidates to the priesthood and to consecrated life.»

The document reads: «Veritably, no diocese and no religious community and no secular institute in North America has more candidates than can be comfortably accommodated or hospitably welcomed.»

The Nashville Dominicans may be an exception to that rule, but they are hardly the only one. A recent study by the Catholic Research Center in Burke, Virginia, finds considerable good news on the vocations front.

It lists 25 new religious communities that are growing rapidly and more than 100 growing communities that are awaiting Church approval. Even among older communities, 23% increased their membership between 1966 and 1999, the study finds.

Orders and communities where postulants keep knocking on the door include the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, which is building a seminary in Denton, Nebraska; the Legionaries of Christ, whose U.S. novitiate is in Cheshire, Connecticut; the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and the Sisters of St. Francis of Alton, Illinois.

Referring to the working document, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., told the Register that he found the statement about accommodations «confusing, oddly worded and ambiguous.»

The archbishop pointed to a number of seminaries that are «crowded,» including Mount St. Mary´s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which recently had to build a new wing; the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio; and Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Oregon.

Those are the institutions where he sends men studying for the priesthood in Omaha. «I´m ordaining eight this year,» Archbishop Curtiss said. «I can´t say there´s a shortage.» His archdiocese has 214,000 Catholics.

Like others interviewed for the Register article, Archbishop Curtiss said that young men and women respond to a vocation when they are confident they can serve in a diocese or community that is «solid and with the Church.»

Other dioceses that are doing well with priestly vocations include Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; Peoria, Illinois; Fall River, Massachusetts; Arlington, Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Charlotte, North Carolina; Lansing, Michigan; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Rockford, Illinois. But the working document makes no mention of them.

Father Raymond Lafontaine, the Canadian co-chairman of the vocations congress, defended the statement about accommodations by saying it is meant to paint a generalized picture of the vocations problem.

«There are very few, if any, that are actively turning away large numbers of people, even those that are bursting at the seams,» he said. «It was an attempt to express the fact that a lot of our communities are in need of new members.»

Sister of Mercy Barbara Anne Gooding, coordinator of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, said: «It´s more about how you interpret ´comfortably accommodate.´» She said communities are finding ways to integrate postulants, and none is getting more than it can handle.

She said many of the communities experiencing growth belong to the more traditional Council of Major Superiors.

Sister Barbara Anne was a member of the committee that drafted the document, though she did not contribute the particular element regarding the shortage of vocations.

«The Lord sends people to places that are healthy,» said Father Glenn Sudano, community servant of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. In a reference to the statement about accommodations, he asked, «Can candidates be accommodated in terms of the faith? When they´re not accommodating young people with the truth, there are empty novitiates.»

Michael Wick, chief operating officer for the Institute on Religious Life in Chicago, pointed out that it is generally the more orthodox communities that are attracting more candidates. «Those who are with the Church and embrace Pope John Paul´s vision of the Church and wish to be part of the new evangelization, are experiencing significant growth,» he said.

But Father Sudano cautioned, «A conservative community that is orthodox is not guaranteed recruits. … If you´re living a countercultural life that´s authentic and fulfilling an evident need in society and the Church, there´s a better chance you´ll make it.»

Archbishop Curtiss will be participating in the congress and warned that its agenda and its management of the issues are important.

«If the congress supports the priesthood and the consecrated life as defined by the Church, it will be worthwhile,» he said. «If you´ve got people fussing over the ordination of women, that´s not very encouraging.»

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