One of the ongoing issues for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States for a number of years now is an acute shortage of priests. For many reasons, the number of vocations is not keeping up with the need for priests in congregations, a condition that’s exacerbated by the aging of the priests who are serving in the church. Smaller, younger dioceses in locations with fewer and more widespread parishes seem to be more burdened by this scarcity of priests than the old, densely populated urban dioceses. Yet I know about this first hand from a Roman Catholic priest friend of mine in Bucks County, and because I know that on several occasions the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has ordained just three men to the priesthood in a given year.
That may begin to change under the leadership of Pope Francis, but a while back I read an article about how some dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States have been recruiting priests from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, among other places, to close the gap. One of the places the author of this article explored was the Diocese of Owensboro in Western Kentucky, perhaps because is it so much smaller and more rural than, say, a place like the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The article particularly captured my imagination, and continues to do so as we enter the season of Epiphany. It was about a priest named Crispin Oneko who is from Kenya. His story was full of anecdotes. Some were funny like thinking a large statue of Uncle Sam he saw by the side of the highway was the Sam from Sam’s Club. Others were achingly painful as he related the tremendous cultural shift from the African church to the one in Western Kentucky. As a boy, the priest in his parish was an American who spoke the language of his people fluently and who was beloved by the villagers. That American priest was part of the inspiration for his own vocation as a priest. After serving in Kenya for a number of years, Fr. Oneko responded to the call for priests to serve in other parts of the world, first in Jamaica and then in Kentucky.
One of his early adjustments in the United States…and you’re going to love this… was to address a widespread desire for him to shorten his homilies. In Kenya he had preached to people who traveled hours to get to church and would have been disappointed if the sermon had been brief. But he listened and was empathetic and responsive to the needs of his American congregation. The interesting thing was that he felt like he was, in a sense, a missionary even though he was not bringing the faith to those who have never heard it before. The encouraging thing was that he embraced the challenges involved in nurturing those whose experience was so vastly different from his own.
Today we celebrate…a couple of days early to be sure…today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. I have to tell you, I am deeply drawn to this day with its haunting tales of mysterious visitors from far away, and to the fear and disquiet their search arouses in the powers-that-be in Jerusalem. I love the majesty of the heavens revealing to “strangers” that God is doing a new thing in the midst of his people Israel. I thrill at Paul’s insistence that this new thing is a gift to everyone, that now all of us, regardless of what family we were born into or where we hail from, are God’s chosen.
This is a season which makes me wonder what it would be like to hear the Good News as “new” news. What would it be like to hear the story of Jesus, not as something we learned in dribs and drabs as we grew up, but as the startling and life-changing declaration that it actually still is? What would it be like if coming to worship was something we were willing to walk many miles and hours to do instead of something to be squeezed into an already overfull day? What would it be like to feel disappointed because the sermon only lasted 10 to 15 minutes, and left us dying to hear more?
As a priest myself, I wonder what it would be like to have the words to break through the familiarity of it all and make the Good News as fresh as it has been throughout the ages as people hear and believe for the first time. What would it be like to recall us from the cultural demands that neutralize the message and renew the call to give ourselves over to God with nothing held back, as the most practical thing in the world? But there is no way to know what any of these things would be like, is there, because there’s no way to go back. As God’s chosen we can only go forward, carried on by the good old news of the gospel stories and all the rest of the riches of scripture.
The call to each of us for whom the story is so familiar is the same as the call to those who are hearing it for the first time. God yearns for us to love him back. Everything else flows from that. So settle back and close your eyes for a moment. Listen to some thoughts that were written by a Jesuit name Pedro Arrupe. Think about them in the context of the demands and opportunities of your own life.
Nothing is more practical than finding God,
that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you will do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
who you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
Whom and what do you love? What grabs your imagination? How do you spend your time? With whom do you associate? What makes you sad beyond expressing? What blows your mind with hope and fulfillment and peace?