Newly ordained transitional deacons walk in procession at the conclusion of an ordination Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican (CNS/Paul Haring)

When I read the bishop’s letter, the word that sprung to mind was “pathetic.”

I truly meant pathetic in both its senses. The letter elicited compassion, and it elicited incredulity; it was genuinely moving, and it was woefully inadequate.

The letter was included in the bulletin of the upstate New York parish where I have worshiped on many spring, summer, and fall Sundays since the 1970s.

The letter reprinted a column by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham that recently appeared in the diocese of Syracuse’s Catholic Sun. It was a reflection on the disruptions and disappointments provoked by the latest round of reassignments of priests, including protests of a decision to retire a dozen or so pastors over eighty. The bishop acknowledged the “heartache and even anger” that understandably occurred when bonds of affection and trust were torn by asking long-serving pastors to step down or moving priests to new duties or parishes elsewhere. I resonated to Bishop Cunningham’s heartfelt plea to parishioners to let go of “what has been” and to embrace “Christ’s presence in what is new.”

But then there was this:

“I for one did not expect the shortage of priests that we are experiencing in our country and within our own diocese. When I was in the seminary and in the early years of my priesthood, vocations to the priesthood flourished. Later years would see a steady decline in vocations, the consequences of which were not fully grasped until the last ten years or so.

Ten years ago the Diocese of Syracuse had 161 active priests. Today we have 101. Of the active priests 31 have already celebrated their 70th birthday.”

What? “I for one did not expect the shortage of priests…. the consequences of which were not fully grasped until the last ten years or so.”

With all due respect, what planet was Bishop Cunningham inhabiting?

With all due respect, what planet was Bishop Cunningham inhabiting? Alarms about a priest shortage go back at least to the 1980s. As a matter of fact, the early years of Bishop Cunningham’s priestly life—he was ordained in 1969—saw an exodus from active ministry and a drop in seminary enrollments.

In 1993, almost a quarter century ago, Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priests Shortage in the United States by Richard A. Schoenherr, Lawrence A. Young, and Tsan Yuang Chen provided careful projections that have proven, if not flawless, all too prescient. Despite some episcopal efforts to dismiss these scholarly findings as the grousing of a former priest (Schoenherr), by the end of the Nineties the ominous trends could not be evaded.

Bishop Cunningham’s letter closes, predictably, by invoking the “urgent need” to pray for priestly vocations and foster a family culture that supports them. I can only concur, although I’ve heard these pleas so many times that it’s hard not to suspect God is trying to tell us something by the minimal results. But I will also be praying for vocations to the episcopacy that might promise an end to a culture of denial and a willingness to openly discuss, to quote Bishop Cunningham, the possibility of “Christ’s presence in what is new.” 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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