During the last month I have been on the road, meeting with a number of men who are discerning their vocation to religious life. While traveling I take advantage of opportunities to visit parishes, where I am occasionally introduced to other men who are discerning as well. At one of the parishes I recently visited, a friend told me, "Maybe you should talk with Jose, the young man who was the server at Mass today. He is a student in my religious education class and a very fine young man."
I sat with Jose for about an hour after Mass, and I found out he has indeed started thinking about priesthood. But he noted in the course of our conversation, "I did not know who to talk to about my desire to be a priest." His parish is a small one, where the pastor only visits once a week as a sacramental minister. Jose thought his pastor usually had too many other people with whom to meet. And this young man, a high school sophomore of Latino descent, did not know how to approach him with his vocation questions.
A few days after meeting Jose, I had the chance to hear Timothy Matovina—who is a professor of theology and executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame—speak about "Latino Catholicism: Current Realities and Opportunities." Some of what he shared in his talk helped me reflect on my conversation with Jose.
Matovina noted that currently 40 percent of American Catholics are Latino and the number will be close to 50 percent before long. But despite that large percentage of Latino Catholics in the United States, only about 3 percent of the priests serving in the U.S. are of Latino descent. The numbers of Latino men entering the seminary are on the rise, but the increase is not happening quickly enough! One reason might be a fact cited in a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA): the number of young Latinos who have personally known priests is lower than in other cultures.
Due to the fact that there has been a major shortage of Latino representation in our seminaries and religious life in general, Matovina noted, "Two-thirds of the Latino faith communities in this country have a priest who is not Latino." This situation by no means negates the incredible sacrifices non-Latino ministers have made to learn Spanish and reach out to the Latino communities in their parishes. (I myself have tried to learn Spanish while in my formation and use quite a bit in my ministry.) But it does show the large gap that needs to be filled.
If the young Latino men in our country don't have contact with priests or religious, who is going to inspire them to pursue that path to their vocation? And if they don't see people like themselves in parish ministry or don't feel invited to enter into ministry in their parish, how are they going to be motivated to begin their own discernment?
I think that the people in the pews can help make a difference. A report by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops indicates that "if one person encourages someone to consider a religious vocation, he/she is TWICE as likely to do so." And "if three persons encourage, he/she is more than FIVE times as likely to do so." Wow! What a difference the encouragement of a few people can make! We need all Catholics not only to pray for vocations, but also to encourage those in their parish and religious education classes to consider a vocation. Your prayers and encouragement may make the difference in whether individuals are willing to discern their call.
Read previous columns by Brother David.