R.I. Fares Better Than Other States in Solving Church's Shortage of Priests

By Arthur Kimball-Stanley
Providence Journal
July 14, 2006

Hearing the call to become a priest, Jeremy Rodrigues said, was like falling in love.

"You ever meet someone you love spending time with," he said, "like a woman you want to marry? Well, I'm here because I love Christ; I love the church, and the people of God."

Rodrigues said it was his love of the church that drew him into studying at Our Lady of Providence Seminary, and ultimately into his decision to become a Diocesan priest. It's a decision that fewer and fewer young American Catholic men are making, despite the nation's ever-growing number of people who identify themselves as Roman Catholics.

But here in Rhode Island the problem is not nearly as grave as in the rest of the country. The Diocese of Providence has seen the number of young people entering the vocation over the last eight to 10 years increase, according to Father Marcel Taillon, vocations director for the Diocese of Providence. In fact, Our Lady of Providence Seminary has even expanded to meet the growing numbers of men interested in entering religious life.

The problem isn't getting young men to become interested in the church and a life of service, according to those charged with recruiting for the church; it's getting them to commit to a way of life that is in many ways at odds with modern American culture.

"I am certain there are young men in college hearing the call, but who are not answering" Father Taillon said. "It's not that there is a shortage of men called, but that it's hard for them to listen to God."

So, what leads someone into the priesthood? What allows a young Catholic man to listen to God?

Born into a Catholic Portuguese family, Rodrigues, 23, said the church played a strong role in his early life. He recalled that when he attended church as a young boy with his grandfather, he was fascinated by the aura and mystery that surrounded the priest as he performed the ancient rituals of the Mass.

"I was very affected by it at a very early age," he said.

But by high school, much of that fascination fell by the wayside. By the time Rodrigues was a senior, he said, being a priest was far from his mind.

"I was excited about going to college, getting a job, and being successful in the business world," he said. "I wasn't thinking about the church."

During his freshman year at Merrimack College, in North Andover, Mass., Rodrigues said, he started to question his direction in life. The courses he studied, he said, left him unfulfilled. A feeling that there had to be more to life consumed him. He did a lot of soul-searching during this time and found that something was drawing him to religious life.

Rodrigues transferred to Providence College, where he began to study philosophy and began talking to Father Taillon about being a priest. He began going to Mass more often and volunteering at his church. He went on a bishop's retreat, where he spent hours praying and thinking about the priesthood.

"Something," Rodrigues said, "called me to be with Christ."

After a time, he moved into the seminary and began supplementing his regular undergraduate studies with religious work. He began to pray as part of his daily routine. Slowly, the decision to become a priest became the obvious choice.

"Some people were a little weirded out," he said about his choice. "And some though it was kind of cool, and understood that my family was very Catholic. When you explain what's going on inside of you, they begin to understand."

Realizing what he was undertaking was a very powerful experience. "Anybody can be a social worker and talk to someone," he said, "or be a psychiatrist and talk to someone. But what we do is different. A priest cares about whether someone gets to heaven, and that's a big difference."

Rodrigues said he knew what he was sacrificing to become a priest. For his first years at seminary the questions were many.

"I would never say to someone the thought never crossed my mind. Should I have a family? Should I be a father?" he said. "What I realized is I can see myself not being a married person because I have this love for Christ."

The sexual-abuse scandals that plagued the church during his formative years, according to Rodrigues, provided neither a deterrent nor an impetus for his decision to become a priest. He isn't trying to save the church, he said, nor is he oblivious to the trials the church is undergoing. What he knows, he said, is that he is compelled to become a priest because it allows him to serve God and his community in a way he finds more fulfilling than anything else, he explained.

"If anything, [the scandals] give me the energy to think that I'm going to do better," Rodrigues said. "That I'm going to remain focused."

When churchgoers see him, Rodrigues said, they are always supportive. Taking part in a Mass in Cranston, Rodrigues helps with readings and distributing Communion. He wears robes during the service, but he must remind parishioners, he said, that he is not yet a priest.

"They don't know what to call me," he said. "They don't feel comfortable calling me by my first name. It shows that they respect what I'm going through, and what I'm heading towards."

With 64 percent of its population identifying themselves as Roman Catholics, Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the nation, according to the Providence Diocese. As a result, according to Father Taillon, there are a relatively large number of young people from the state who are called to the church. On average, he said, the Diocese of Providence turns out four or five new priests each year. As a result, Rhode Island is not in need of new priests to the same extent as in other parts of the country, especially in the South and Southwest.

In 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research group that gathers statistics on the Catholic Church, there were 994 priests ordained in the United States. By last year, that number had dropped to 454. While the Catholic Church in the United States has grown by nearly 20 million people in the past 40 years, according to the center, the number of priests has steadily declined. About 17 percent of U.S. Catholic parishes -- 3,751 congregations -- are without a resident pastor.

The decline in the number of Catholic priests in the United States, according to Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the apostalate study center, means that fewer priests must minister to more people. "As a priest, you are finding that you may have more than one parish," she said. "You may have 100 families at one parish and you may have another 100 at a different parish."

As a result, Gautier said, parishioners have been sharing many nonsacramental church responsibilities priests have traditionally performed. "They can't do everything priests can," she said. "But, they can do some things."

The Catholic Church, nearly 2,000 years old, has evolved into an organization that depends on having men commit themselves to a celibate and reverent life serving communities of Catholics throughout the world. Without these men, sacraments such as Mass, marriage and baptism -- fundamentals of Catholic life -- cannot take place.

"In society, what we are seeing are fewer and fewer priests because of the increased amount of attention to individualism and materialism," said Monsignor Edward Burns, executive director of the secretariat for vocations and priestly formations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in Washington, D.C. "It seems as though young people are not entering into lives of service as they once did. The culture is not supporting a life of service."

To solve this problem, Monsignor Burns said, means focusing on the diocesan level.

"There is no national blueprint for this," he said. "It is done by the local church."

The challenges priests face today, Father Taillon said, should not be underestimated.

"The church is operating in a more secular culture than ever," he said. "One of the things candidates need to be capable of doing today is developing many more talents, and be able to preach and teach in new ways."

Rodrigues said he is not deterred by the challenge the church is facing.

"The church isn't going anywhere," he said. "Do people's reactions in society change? Sure. That means the church will just have to find different ways of incorporating itself and shepherding its flock." / (401) 277-7485


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