THERE is a sort of impertinence in the laity writing about the necessity for recruiting for the priesthood. We on the Catholic Herald are laymen. We did not become priests. We tend to be heavily married and yet. for this one Sunday of the year when we pray for an abundance Of good priests, we must join in the recruiting game. Next Sunday is Vocation Sunday.
There are many reasons for being a priest. It is certainly a respectable profession. It is likely to guarantee you three square meals a day and a roof over your head for the rest of Your life. But that is not even an argument: it is a joke made by a sensible man nervous of appearing sentimental over so great a decision.
Many of the old consolations of the priestly state have been swept away in the fierce self-imposed reformation of the Church of Rome which followed the Second Vatican Council.
The priest was once a fixed star in his society, in his Catholic sub-culture. For giving up pleasure of the flesh, he got in return real and uricontestable power in parisL, church, school and in half a dozen local social and welfare organisations.
He could walk his streets certain of the deference of his flock. To the Irish at least, he was a substitute for an aristocracy. For his people he was at once a source of discipline, a citizens' advice bureau, a source of irrefutable wisdom and a reassurance in a frequently hostile world.
But if all these things do still exist, they are no longer conferred automatically. There is virtually no anticlericalism in-this country-. But, more and more, like men in any profession, the priest has now to earn his respect and status and influence. It has probably never been spritually more difficult to be a priest, to endure its frustrations, disciplines, longeurs and repetitions.
• The times we live in may be evil, and man as capable of war and greed and cruelty as ever. But there is a new practical compassion at work which makes men more aware of their duties and shortcomings. In a curious way. this has become almost the enemy of recruitment to the priesthood or, for that matter, the sisterhood of nuns. If the world has gained something in compassion, the Church has, in practice, lost some of its ancient and proper awe for the sacraments and respect for itself. Certainly the whole Church came out of the Council with a Pew sense of corporate sin. Where before we would defend even the Inquisition. now we find it hard to discover any good at all, Each saint seems a little flawed. Each corporate action performed by the Church less than perfect. The pendulum has swung too far, and doubtless in time we shall acquire an equilibrium: for the continuance of the Church is not in doubt.
But the young man called to serve rather than become rich and multiply or merely to have as good a time as his wage packet and his reponsibilities allow, this new young man has a difficult decision. A lot of them cannot see how hest to serve God.
To please Him best may not be at the altar or in the austerities of a monastic life, but in the drudgery of serving one's fellow men, directly, without ceremony. The sacraments tend to become, if not an irrelevance, then at least a luxury.
Nothing could be more tragic than the widespread acceptance of this admittedly charitable attitude. Far harder and more mysteriously essential is the drudgery of prayer and the sacraments.
And we need these sacrificing priests, not only for the essential service of a God who comes even before our neighbour, but as a source of such goodness as we can bring to bear on the world. Even a poor. weak priest is better than no priest at all. Good priests, and their essential and unique labours for and with the laity, are still the pillars upon which goodness rests.
They may he bored, irritated by their superiors, ravening for change, and yet nothing that a man can do matters more \than those things they do as routine with a dying man. with a chalice and paten, with the incessant reminder that nothing lasts here and that even suffering is overshadowed by God.
In the end, there is little we can do in the recruiting drive, and must trust that God will send the priests, not that we deserve, but that we need.