I truly get tired and frustrated to hear “again” the wailing, mourning, funeral refrain “declining number of priests.” Why don’t we start to think differently? Perhaps we need a new leader not with this wailing refrain. Stop talking about closing the parish. Start talking about evangelization. To think differently does not only mean to disagree but there is much more, I mean to think hopefully, faith-fully instead of hopelessly, faithlessly. Wailing is a clear sign of loosing trust in the Lord and a sign of lack of understanding the nature of the Church. This is the Church of God, not of “our.” People so quick to forget Jesus’ confirmation and assurance: “On this rock I build MY Church, and even the power of hell can not destroy it” ( ). I believe Jesus again must feel very frustrated saying to us, “you, little faith.” “Having said that” I am sure we must down on our knees and “pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out the labourers in his harvest” (Mat) and believe in his promise “to be with you until the end of time.” ( ), and not dare to take over saying “our” church, “our responsibility.” This is exactly the trap that devil put out to our first parents, people of Israel, not excluding Jesus, and for sure us today.
The trap that Pope Benedict XVI called “the illusion of self-sufficiency.” So the most important thing and before anything else for us all, especially the leaders is to turn to God in prayer. Prayer must be fervent, constant, honest in recognizing “without God we can do nothing”, not just an intention once in a while. Prayer must be in a campaign like raising fund for the new cathedral. Prayer is important to know whose is this Church and how to resolve the problem in HIS way, not in human way like running a business as we’ve been doing: if you’re not doing well we close. We tend to forget Church’s mission which is Jesus’ mission “to seek out the loss.” If we don’t have priest, we put someone else in. God suffers because “people like sheep without shepherd” (latin: pastor). Priest moderator is not pastor but a “pizza deliver” not knowing the name even face of the receiver. I definitely not live my priesthood that way. I guess that lifestyle is for those who for his whole life working in the office and “doing” ministry on the weekend! Needless to say that is a kind of disrespect toward people and not recognize the intense holistic formation of the priest for his important ministry. It’s strange that people call upon professionalism for almost everything but not to a person who are responsible to people’s souls. I guess we’ve been so contaminated by the secular mentality that finance, structure … are of the most important, but God’s things are taken lightly or put at the bottom of the list. Too sad we lost the direction. It seems to me like at battle field, the General turns to the soldiers asking what to do. For more than decade I have been questioning if our leader has any direction at all. One time I just said ‘poor advice.” Here we must humbly and honestly thank a group of the laity who have been quietly dedicating themselves in prayer, in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament because they knew more than anybody else what is essential. These are true builders who do not need the praise. I found that at meeting, speeches we have too much praises and totally lack of the examinations what has gone wrong. We’re too nice to each other that we keep quite what we don’t agree. Once in a while I heard a priest told me only after meeting what needed to be spoken at the meeting. A friend is the one who have courage to tell your mistakes.
That trust in the Lord brings me to the second point. We must not succumb to the crisis. We must look around and find out what is the real cause of the problem. The shortage of priests is not a universal one. Look at the statistics … The resolution must be founded on the principle of our faith. Perhaps we lose this principle as we’re in the crisis of our identity. So first of all we must be convinced that: We need priests. “The world needs priests now and future” as pope Benedict said. Simply because without priest there will be no Eucharist and Jesus’ promise to feed his people cannot be fulfilled, and his teaching on bread of life becomes empty. Moreover Jesus needs priests to “feed his lambs.”
Secondly, vocations is the sign of the vitality of the community of faith. So make your community vital, actually spiritually vital not just socially vital. This must be a constant and permanent concern of the leader and of all because a vital community gives birth to vocations. This is obvious: Africa, Asia have abundant vocations because their church is vital. 85 % Catholics are regularly practicing their faith. Fifty years ago everyone went to Church on Sunday and we had many priests in one family like the Rolheisers, Morands, three sisters in the Kosolofski, etc…and we send priests to up-north, oversea. You see? So the permanent solution is: in order to have priests, sisters, make your parish, diocese truly alive. Working truly on the evangelization despite of hardship. Have courage to see also what we’re not doing good, not just always praising each other…
Thirdly, for the short term, we must ask for help from other dioceses who can provide doesn’t matter wherever they are in the world. Blessed Pope John Paul II said before and this year Pope Benedict XVI said again in his message for World Day of Vocations particularly to bishops, “I would also remind you , dear brother Bishops, of the concern of the universal Church for an equitable distribution of priests in the world. Your openness to the needs of dioceses experiencing a dearth of vocations will become a blessing from God for your communities and a sign to the faithful of a priestly service that generously considers the needs of the entire Church.” It’s very clear to me that African bishops and Asian Bishops have done their part, the problem I can see is on our part. Don’t be shy to receive help. This is crucial not only on the terms of getting help for priests but also on the understanding and living out the faith in universal Church. Catholic Church is ONE FAMILY. There is no boundary of countries, races, cultures at all. If we still say “our Church”, “our responsibility” we’re miss this point and show our narrow mindedness. Bishop Blaise Morand made no apologies for his practice saying Canadian parishes can only be enriched by priests from other parts of the world. “I certainly do not share the position that there is this big cultural wall that exists between us and them. There are cultural differences, but it enriches us, it does not impoverish us.” I totally agree. I don’t even know even what the ‘culture shock’ is about! People, especially priests (particular priests from Africa with a bunch of Ph.D.) have more than enough capacity to adapt. No big deal. Do not be afraid to see each other as family members. At the recent retreat, Fr. Gosbert Byanmungu did a right thing when he talked about the collegiality among clergy in the world. The secular world I think does better than us. The world now becomes very small and countries depend on each other. The Communist in Vietnam 15 years ago awakened and knew they cannot survive without opening wide the doors for foreign investors. If we close our door we die soon. One priest of Saskatoon wrote to me on Nov. 30, 2005 from outside the diocese (I still wonder why he said with tears in his eyes at priest conference in Balm he will not be able to teach in the diocese after he finished his Ph.D??), “I do wonder if we have not lost hopefulness in the face of the challenges of the priest “shortage” in our diocese. The kind of management models that are operant perhaps come from a desire to “die gracefully” rather than respond with imagination and courage.” I must thank Mgr Len Morand who was the one who broke the door of this diocese to have missionary priests coming to rescue our diocese saying, “Bishop, if you saw we need priests, you do it because we’ve been talking too long.” Thank God for a true love of a good shepherd. Pride always causes enormous damage right from the beginning of creation. Few years back, I was told by a respected senior clergy, “you must speak out. They always thought they are the best!” For me, our missionaries were able to work in Brasil not necessarily because ours are better but only because the people in Brazil accepted us. At recent deanery meeting in Leader, I asked 3 missionary priests if their superiors and bishops are willing to help us, they all said if you asked.” People should know about this. I can say for the Church in Vietnam. The Bishops already had a plan to send priests to the surrounding countries. In my home diocese, it’s contrast over here, one parish is divided in three for three pastors. So ask and shall be given ( ).
We must respect and be grateful to our missionary priests by using the proper term. The term ‘International or offshore priests’ does not make sense to me at all and even shows people do have no clue about the theological nature of priesthood. The use the term is important because it guides and forms our understanding, our spirituality and behavior as well, for example, the Church said the term ‘lay presider’ and ‘lay presider liturgy’ are wrong but people still use it. People do not learn that the priest presides over the assembly only on the virtue of the sacrament of Holy Order and the liturgy does not take the name from the people who lead it, for example, the Church do not say ‘priest liturgy’ but the Eucharist or the Mass (see Redemptionis Sacramentum #165). Archbishop Adam Exner once told me in our conversation, “the implementation of Sunday celebration of the Word without proper education of the people causes a lot of damage.” We better listen to the Church. We’re not smarter than the Church. At deanery meeting in Kindersley, some good parishioners from Fox Valley said, “We don’t hear the presenters from the diocese referring to the document of the Church at all.” I guess they teach their own opinion. That’s dangerous! This brings me to another consideration: priest has no professionalism any more. Cooperation does never exclude your own identity and professionalism. Other than this I can see it only a distrust in oneself, an irresponsibility, or ‘pandering’ on the side of leader. In my conversation with a respected layman recently at Study Day, he just had his eyes open wide saying, “Really… Really!” It’s tough to be a priest in this situation because you cannot do what you’re taught to do! It’s tough and heartache to hear recently from one of my brother missionary priest, “they want African doctors but not African priests!” Sorry, my dear brother and our benefactor.
Fourthly for a longer term, the diocese must have a definite project. It’s strange that we make up a strategy in everything but not in creating priests that we desperate need, it’s sad. By this I mean we must have a goal of having 4 ordinations each year which means we must send 4 seminarians each year to the seminary. Imagine, in 10 years we will have 40 priests. In 15 years I am sure we can send priests to other part of the family because as a small diocese like Saskatoon, we don’t need even 50 priests. Where these vocations come from? Of course, we expect first from our own diocese. And as above, if we need help, why not ask for help from other part of the family? I am sure there will be no problem at all. Here I recall the lesson of Bishop Blaise Morand who makes no apologies “I need priests for the people. My house is open for all around here. If they don’t come, I have to find somewhere else.” They will be educated in Canada. They will work permanent for the diocese.
So it’s reasonable, affordable. Better to light the candle than keeping mourning and curse the dark… God forbid it. People are misled and frustrated. Perhaps the old generation with low energy needs to step aside and let the new generation with full of energy to take care of it and all will “God provides amazingly.” Wake up and go back to Jerusalem. Don’t leave Jerusalem with a long face and going to our own small village. The Church is big. God is big. We should think big. Next generation already think big, look at the young people such as CCO, Face to Face… perhaps the former generation with all the doom and gloom (not those with hope) should step aside and let they take care of the Church.
Stop talking about closing but evangelization. Stop talking about withdrawing but expanding. In my traveling around the rural in small town like Dinsmore, Milden, Lorvern, Ruthilda, etc… wherever I see a Catholic church there must be at least an evangelical church. But it’s not necessary vice versa. In one diocesan meeting it seems to me just a show when we have a panel that asked a member moving from a closing parish to a nearby parish how does she feel. Don’t ask this people. Ask those the diocese left behind how they feel. Where are they? I thank the evangelical church for being a refuge for my dear parishioners when I, their pastor, abandoned them!!!!
Bishop LeGatt once year at retreat called me to his room saying, “You have many ideas different from diocese.” Yes, I am different because I am a priest of the Universal Catholic Church, not reformer. I inherit the faith and courage of the martyrs. "
Fr. Phong Pham