TIME magazine this week (June 19, 2017), in a seven-page article, calls them “The God Squad” – with the sub-title “Young, energized and ready to remake the Church, the next generation of priests wants to surprise you.” Just as we were getting used to, resigned to or jubilant at the decline of Catholicism, we discover a new dynamism among some young Catholic men in the U.S. who feel called to the priesthood. There were 54 million Catholics in the U.S. in 2007; in 2014 there were only 51 million. In the same period, “Nones” (religiously unaffiliated adults) increased from 37 million to 56 million. In graduate-level Catholic seminaries there were, in 2005, only 1300 men under age 30. But by 2016 that number had increased to 1900 !
Pope Francis must be doing something right. Highly motivated young priests are staffing American parishes and making their presence, preaching and pastoral care felt. According to the TIME article, there were in 1967 58,600 priests in the U.S.; today there are only 37,200. But though today no less than 3,500 parishes do not have their own pastor, it would seem that in the decades to come, more and more priests will be available to staff them. They will, however, be seen as counter-cultural. TIME spells out some of the differences : the new breed of priests actually believe that sex outside heterosexual marriage is sinful (!) and that Jesus really rose from the dead (!!). “They embrace institutions and rituals their millenial peers eschew.” For them, “the old Mass of their grandparents is now hip and exotic.” They even wear a clerical collar, which went out of fashion not long after Vatican 2 (1962-1965). Though conservative on moral issues like marriage and abortion, they are not arch-conservatives but politically independent, for example, in opposing Trump on immigration. They are already Catholicism’s hope for the future.
Atheists may be disappointed with these early signs of a possible Catholic renaissance, but should not be surprised. The need for reassurance about the meaning of life and especially the wishful thinking about an “afterlife” will never entirely disappear. In the meantime it is to be hoped that the message of this Blog and other appeals to rational reflection will challenge young men attracted to the priesthood to re-examine their blind faith and blind folly, before they make the mistake I made when I was their age.