Friday, July 17, 2009

In Memphis, What Shortage?

Sure, it might be best known as the home of "The King" -- whose annual Memorial Mass there is just around the corner again... but in this Year of the Priest, the 73,000-member diocese of Memphis is well in contention for another crown: King of Vocations.

OK, of sorts.

See, while a handful of dioceses have larger groups of seminarians, even the smallest of those are exponentially more sizable than the West Tennessee church, which'll ordain six new priests by summer's end -- twice as many as this year's diocesan crop in New York (Catholic pop.: 2.5 million), two-thirds the size of Chicago's (2.1 million) and the same number as were ordained for the nation's largest see, the 4.5 million-member archdiocese of Los Angeles.

For the stat-fans among us, LA is 61 times larger than its Elvisland counterpart.

Experience shows that in those places where identity and community are strong, every call in the life of the church is cherished and encouraged and -- most of all -- a living, joyful Spirit breathes in its members, vocations boom.... So how'd Memphis do it? The local paper tries to figure it out:
"Memphis is in the growth mode," said Father John Geaney, spokesman for the diocese....

Memphis, with 25 seminarians and 73,000 parishioners, ranks in the top five in the nation for recruits, said Geaney, although Catholics in the city make up only 3 to 4 percent of the population.

The two reasons for this growth, he said, were Bishop J. Terry Steib and Father Keith Stewart.

"The bishop insists that we keep looking for and doing all we can to form young men for the priesthood," said Geaney.

Stewart, the diocese's vocational director, has been called aggressive in his pursuit.

"He goes after people," said Geaney.

Stewart attributes his success to monthly "Evenings of Discernment" where interested parishioners are invited to pray and reflect on the calling.

"I'm just helping Jesus get his due," said Stewart. "There's a lot out there competing for a guy's attention. It's the chance to awaken somebody to church vocation, whether it's religious life as a sister or a priest."

Stewart also travels to other countries, where the priesthood is growing. Newly ordained priest Jacek Cowal hails from Poland, and the two priests to be ordained in August are both from Mexico....

Another factor that might help explain the boom in Memphis is age. Memphis recruits are younger than the national average, said Geaney. The four priests ordained in June were in their late 20s.

While former Pope John Paul II had a particular pull with youth, Geaney said the church's leadership under Pope Benedict XVI did not factor into the overall decline of the priesthood.

"Frankly, it does not have much to do with the personality of the pope," he said. "It's the fact they believe they are called by God to do this work."

Over the last year, Memphis saw another seven men enter formation -- an increase of 40%. In the neighboring (112,000-member) diocese of Little Rock, last year's sem-class skirted 30 -- its highest count since 1966.

Bottom line: Southland, take a bow... again.