By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 23, 2007
Catholic families should adopt a “culture of vocations” to increase the numbers of women and men becoming sisters and priests, according to speakers at the Serra International Convention.
Nearly 600 members of Serra International clubs from around the globe, meeting in Atlanta, heard bishops, Scripture scholars, and other speakers urge them to continue to support women and men as they consider serving the church in the future and to encourage priests and sisters working now.
James Smith, 72, of Galveston, Texas, said it’s important for families to nourish vocations.
“That’s where the seed is planted, in the family, and it’s nurtured through active participation with religion,” said the retired educator and longtime Serra member.
Prelates from the United States, Canada, and Mexico spoke to Serrans during their four-day conference about ways for the church to reverse a pattern in which fewer men are being ordained to serve a growing Catholic population.
Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara, Mexico, said it seems easier to list difficulties than solutions to the drop in vocations.
“The solutions have yet to be studied,” he said.
Serra members listened to cardinals during the program and Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory offer solutions like continued prayer for religious vocations, mentoring between young people and clergy, and extending invitations to young people to consider the priesthood and religious life.
Serrans gathered for the 65th international convention focused on “Faith of the Family, Foundation of Vocations.” The organization was founded in 1935 and is represented in 45 countries. Its purpose is to foster and promote vocations to the ministerial priesthood and support priests, along with encouraging men and women who are members of religious orders.
John Woodward, the executive director of Serra International, said the group spotlighted families because it believes the family is “under attack” by the culture.
The family is the environment where people first consider whether to serve God in ministries, he said. “We must cultivate the soil.”
Despite the bleak number of vocations in the country, Woodward said he isn’t discouraged.
“We see that as a great challenge. The church seems to do better under pressure,” said Woodward, who has a son serving as a priest for the Legion of Christ.
The Catholic Church faces a drop in the number of priests available to serve.
In 2006, there were some 28,299 priests in the United States, down from 35,925 in 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Some see hope in an up tick of ordinations on the global scale.
Worldwide, ordinations are up some 47 percent, according to the Georgetown University-based research organization. And in Atlanta, the trend is reversed. Diocesan priests in 2007 number 196, up from 135 seven years ago.
Cardinal Sandoval said what some call “the crisis of vocations is basically a crisis of faith.”
A vocation of ministerial service, like marriage, requires putting Jesus in the center of life, he said. “The love of God takes first place.”
Smaller families can mean parents are reluctant to see children pursue life as a priest or sister out of a desire for grandchildren, he said. But families should see service to God and the church as a privilege, Cardinal Sandoval said. Parents must guide children to ensure they make decisions that lead to a happy life, he said.
Catholics families should live the beatitudes, Cardinal Sandoval said. “Divine Providence watches over the family.”
At the same time, the final decision about a vocation is always between a person and God, he said. “God can call everyone to his service with or without his family.”
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Canada, spoke of the family as the “domestic church.”
A deeper understanding of the family could provide some help in the vocation crisis, he said. “Love in the family images God’s love.”
Parents become agents of vocations by fostering a “sense of God’s beauty” and being open to God’s plan for their families, he said.
“The fertile soil is the domestic church,” he said.
Attending Mass together and frequent prayer are ways to develop those attitudes in the family, he said.
Besides bishops, media personality Raymond Arroyo, news director for EWTN, Holy Land tour guide Stephen Ray, and other others offered insights to the crowd.
Author Jeff Cavins urged parents to look at the Bible again as a way to educate young people in the faith.
“Inside of the Bible is a marvelous story,” Cavins said. “We have the greatest story in the world.”
But people need to relearn how to read it to understand how the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church fit into the Bible story, he said
Cavins served 12 years as a Protestant pastor before returning to his Catholic roots. He authored “My Life on the Rock,” a story about his religious experience.
He poked fun at the read-the-Bible-in-365-days approach. The tough-to-read books discourage people and they never read past the obstacles, he said.
Instead, Cavins urged people to view the 73-book Bible as a sweeping narrative. People can understand the Bible by focusing on the 14 books that tell the story of the Jewish people and the church, he said. “Hollywood can’t touch this.”
He suggested people read the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Maccabees, the Gospel of Luke, and the Book of Acts.
The remaining books are read to enhance the narrative story, he said.
People attending the conference walked away with fresh ideas and renewed in their efforts.
George Arceneaux, of Lafayette, La., said he was pleased to hear from people like Cavins and Protestants who have become Catholics.
“They tell you something about your faith that you take for granted,” he said.
Bill and Ann Polka, of Belleville, Ill., said they were reminded about the importance of families to develop vocations.
“It’s a message that we have to get across to families,” he said.
She said her group has to organize meetings between young women and men and priests and sisters so the young people hear stories about vocations and so they see that priests and sisters are just like them.