At a recent community retreat, Uncle Pat came up to me with a piece of paper covered with writing.
“Am I forgetting anybody,” he asked, putting the paper in front of me.
What he had written, what covered that piece of paper, were the names of all the religious vocations to come out of this community. And there were a lot.
That, to me, speaks to the fruit of living a communal lifestyle.
On the paper were Catholic priests and nuns, but also a wide-range of non-Catholics as well. And can I say here that sometimes I use the term ‘non-Catholic’ because I don’t want to mess up with the other denominations? Paul told me the other day, after I wrote that we had some Presbyterians, that we actually don’t have any Presbyterians here. But for your consideration, here is something I saw in the community office the other day, hanging in the main conference room. It’s a list of all the denominations of our members:
So back to vocations. There are a good number of them to come out of our community. Not all of these men and women are still living here — in fact, many of them go on to spread the Gospel outside of our little neighborhood. We do have several priests who are “members” of our community, even though they are off being diocesan priests. But among those who have spent time here, who grew up here and have gone on to do other things, and those still belonging and living here, we have a Jesuit priest, two Carmelite nuns, at least six diocesan priests, a Lutheran pastor, FOCUS missionaries, deacons, an Episcopal bishop and the list goes on.
Here is an article written recently in the Serra Club newsletter for our diocese, covering a talk given by Sam Alzheimer. Sam runs Vianney Vocations, and he also grew up here in our community.
Our speaker at the November Serra Club meeting was Sam Alzheimer of Vianney Vocations. Sam was born in Warner Robins, but lived most of his life in Augusta. He attended Berry College in Rome and Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. A former seminarian for the Diocese of Savannah, he started Vianney Vocations in 2009. In his talk Sam discussed “Effective Strategies to Increase Priestly Vocations.
He began with the question, “Why did I start Vianney Vocations?”
“I used to work on the stewardship side of things when I noticed that some parishes spent more on educating their members about good stewardship than the entire diocese spent on promoting vocations. The priest abuse scandal is a public relations disaster, which makes it uncomfortable to talk about and promote vocations to the priesthood. But as a result of the scandal men are less likely to consider a priestly vocation, because of the priest abuse issue.”
“Why do we need priests?” he continued.
“Without priesthood there is no Eucharist.
And without Eucharist there is no Church!”
Sam next reviewed the statistics which confirmed the urgency of priest shortage. In 1965, the Catholic population in the United States was 45 million and it now stands at about 70 million. Over that same period, the number of priests has declined steeply from 59,000 to only 40,000 in 2010. And the number of religious sisters has dropped precipitously from 180,000 to below 60,000. This is astounding! How often did some of those sisters influence a young man to consider becoming a priest? Although the number of men attending major seminaries has remained relatively flat this is by no means sufficient to serve the growing number of Catholics in the years ahead.
The priest abuse scandal made it more difficult to talk about the need for priest when some priests behaved so badly. In response to decline in the number of priests, many bishops stopped building parishes, closed churches and clustered parishes. Sam stressed that we need to tell the bad news without focusing on doom and gloom but rather trusting in the Holy Spirit and doing our part to improve the situation.
“We are doing somewhat better in the Diocese of Savannah?” Sam continued. “Our Catholic population has grown significantly since 1958 from only 25,000 to about 80,000 today and is projected to reach 100,000 by 2020. During the same period, the number of active priests has fluctuated between 80 to 100 and we stand at 100 today. Any attrition we experienced from retirements and deaths was been offset by external priests from Poland, Nigeria, Vietnam and Latin America to coming to serve in our diocese. Our current ratio of 1 priest to 1300 people. In order to sustain that ratio we need ordain three new priests per year which will require accepting 5 new seminarians per year, assuming the 60% attrition rate.”
“How can we do this and what can the Serra Club do to help?” Sam continued.
“Personal witness brings people into a closer personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Alleluia Community in Augusta has produced 6 priests and 6 seminarians in the past 15 years.
Pope Benedict has said that if a young people can be taught to pray, they can be trusted to know what to do with God’s plan. It takes a church to raise a priest.” Sam concluded.
The discussion ensued about how to engage the pastors to be more supportive of promoting vocations in their respective parishes.
In response, Sam offered us seven ideas to promote vocations:
1. Promote and support discernment retreats
2. Help reach high school men in the Savannah area i.e. Benedictine
3a. Hold a Vocations Convocation Workshop
3b. Sponsor a dinner with the Bishop and high school students.
4. Promote vocations among altar servers
5. Melchizedek Project – Discussion guide to help discern vocations.
6. Celebrate the Vocation Annual Liturgical events
7. Invitation – Ask young men to consider the priesthood.
Sam gave us a lot to consider.
I think Sam gets to the heart of community living — personal witness. It’s making Jesus come alive, in a very real way. Yes, knowing and understanding the faith is key but in order to be really moved by it, to make it something you’re willing to put your whole heart and soul into, it has to be a living, breathing thing.
Community proves that this is possible, that Jesus can really transform you in a way that touches every minute of every day.
I want to close with a beautiful quote from a friend I recently interviewed. I was doing an obit for the diocesan paper on Dennis and Dan Almeter, a leader in our community, mentioned something that speaks to the heart of WHY community is so important.
“Dennis liked to say ‘everybody needs to be in covenant community,’” said Dan, “and what he meant was in the last millennium almost all the saints came from religious communities. New covenant communities are a modern expression of these communities. If you want to become a saint, this was the best way to go about it.”