Mr. Sam Alzheimer (yes, he's related to the Dr. Alzheimer) of Vianny Vocations, helps diocese and religious groups attract vocations. During the U.S. Regional Assembly, he was invited to describe today's seminarians and their understanding of church and what we might do to attract more men to Maryknoll.
Since 1965 the number of priests and Brothers has dropped from 59,000 to 43,000 today. Meanwhile, the Catholic population has gone from 45 million in 1965 to 65 million today.
By 2022 Maryknoll will have 81 members under 70 years of age; in 2032 we will have just 32. Alzheimer says we can triple the ordination rate by accepting five men a year, allowing for 40 percent attrition rate. That's the best case scenario.
If Maryknoll can be at peace with being a small Society (different than being fatalistic or resigned to our ultimate demise) yet maintain a sense of urgency, we can turn this situation around and attract young men to our mission vocation.
Here's what he says NOT to do: give up.
"Seek the type of men joining seminary and give them a mission experience," he said. "Become the kind of Society they seek."
Contemporary Candidates' Worldview and Ecclesiology (according to CARA):
+ Strong social conscience (huge opportunity for Maryknoll)
+ Theological orthodoxy (whoops!)
+ Loyalty to the Holy Father (more than people realize)
+ Intense devotion to the Eucharist
+ Strong Marian devotion
+ Fully support priestly celibacy
+ A visible priestly identity (Our lapel pins alone just won't cut it, Alzheimer insists.)
+ Reverence for the sacred, especially in liturgy
Do these guys want to turn back th e clock on Vatican II? NO!
Yet the traditional orders are thriving, while liberal ones are dying.
What would impress a prospect visiting Maryknoll? Our history, especially Bishop James E. Walsh's story, and the idea of giving one's life to spread the gospel of Christ overseas.
What would discourage prospects? Our mission museum looks like a "tribute to multiculturalism"; it lacks Catholic identity; (In its defense, I would say it's SUPPOSED to look multicultural, because that is our mission reality. If guys want a Roman experience, they should go to Rome, IMHO, but I digress.) anither turn-off for prospects: Maryknoll priests usually do not wear clerical garb; and with few exceptions we don't make it a habit of being called Father.
Quoting noted Catholic author, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, "There is a rift between Catholics who place a strong emphasis on social justice and those with traditional morality and piety."
We need a holistic spirituality that emphasizes both. Can Maryknoll bridge this gap?
Young Catholics want to help the poor and marginalized. But they are reluctant to do this under the banner of social justice, which they equate with disloyalty to the Church.
Younger candidates, he pointed out, however, are not so polarized or militant.
Maryknoll has a serious reputation problem. Example: National Catholic Register rejected advertising from Maryknoll as not being a "good fit" for their readership. Some diocesan priests would not refer prospects to us.
The language of mission does not resonate as much with people outside our Society.
Our vocation website looks and sounds good: men on fire with mission.
One recommendation: get more young men into an overseas mission experience.
Personal promotion: transform church dates, own some college mission trips.
Digital promotion: drive men to our websites. Survey recent Maryknoll candidates to find out how they learned about us. "Called By Name" email campaign, which his company runs, asks people for the names of young men they know who may have a Maryknoll vocation, and then follow up with a personal invitation.
Maryknoll is at a supreme disadvantage at not being able to recruit directly from the overseas communities where we serve. Our church dates here in the States must have a transparent vocation focus and overt invitation to young men to go on short-term mission. These are the main opportunities for us to encounter potential prospects in a church setting.
He recommends Maryknoll sponsor college mission trips by having a sustained presence on a few select Catholic campuses. Creative financing: Alzheimer suggested Maryknoll pay for these initial exposure trips provided the students agree to speak about their experiences when they return and raise funds for the next student to go overseas.
Cast a wide net to include guys who may not be interested in a lifelong commitment.
We need to become men on fire for vocations if we want young men to be on fire for mission.
Some Maryknollers at the Assembly responded: Do we need to change our identity to attract such vocations? And would that discourage the vocations we have already attracted?
Maryknoll already has a unique identity because we have a worldwide presence.
We shouldn't expect a prospect to be fully formed before he even applies for admission. Our mission experience transforms us. The overseas experience and people overseas will evangelize and form the candidates as they do the Missioners.
We must meet prospects where they are, just like we meet people on the missions where they are. We don't just bring people into the church, but we also educate them theologically. That should remain our policy with candidates. One first-year seminarian said the presentation by Sam Alzheimer described him to a T, but he added, "It's not about Roman collars" but about letting young people know who we are: "Men dedicating their lives to the spread of the gospel among people overseas." That will attract vocations, he insisted.
The Mission of Jesus remains Maryknoll's mission: to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to give sight to the blind and set prisoners free.
We should face the future as if it were mission territory: "The future is like another country; we do things differently there."