“Have you ever thought of being a priest?”

Encouraging young men to consider the priesthood may be the best defense against a local ‘vocations crisis’

By Christina Gray

Parish priests and local parish communities can be powerful “influencers” for the priesthood, according to Father Cameron Faller, vocations director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Like other dioceses across the country, the Archdiocese of San Francisco is in a “vocations crisis,” he said ahead of Vocations Awareness Week, Nov. 5-11. An annual campaign of the U.S. bishops, the week is aimed at promoting vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life.

The total number of diocesan priests in the country has fallen by 9% since 2014, according to an annual report by Vocations Ministry, a Catholic nonprofit that promotes vocations with education and training. The total number of new seminarians fell by 22% in the same period, and the rate of seminarians reaching ordination fell 24%.

“The fact is, we don’t have enough young men entering seminary and being ordained to replace the priests that will be retiring in the coming years, if we were going to fully supply the church as it is now,” said Father Faller.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco currently has 12 seminarians in formation at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park and one seminarian at Bishop White Seminary in Spokane, Washington. New priestly vocation numbers have been low in the Archdiocese for a few decades. There was a surge of new vocations before the pandemic began in 2020, said Father Faller, and it has been “a struggle ever since.”

The math makes the crisis for the local Catholic Church clear.

“We have about 25 priests who will be of retirement (age) in the next five years but we only project having about six newly ordained priests over this same period,” he said.

Invitation: A biblical approach

It’s natural for people to ask about what new program or initiative could be the “silver bullet” in attracting new vocations to the priesthood, Father Faller told Catholic San Francisco.

“These are good questions, but if you look at the Bible, people were called to the priesthood based on a personal invitation,” he said. “Jesus, the first and main priest, didn’t have a ‘program’ for ‘applying to the priesthood.’ He showed his apostles a new way of life and invited them to follow Him.”

Jesus intentionally invited Christianity’s first priests, and they invited one other. There was “constant invitation,” said Father Faller. “I think it’s something that’s been lost, even though it should be very natural,” he said.

CARA study of new ordinands

Data bears this out. Parish communities can be extremely influential in shaping new vocations to the priesthood, according to a survey of 2023 ordinands completed in April by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. The annual study, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life & Vocations found that 70% of men ordained were encouraged toward their vocation by their parish priest; 50% said they were encouraged by a parishioner; 40% were encouraged by a friend and 28-35% encouraged by their parents.

“We noted that priests and parishioners were more influential than even Mom and Dad,” said Father Faller, who has been sending current seminarians out into parishes in all three counties of the Archdiocese to share their vocations stories and to encourage prayer and support for priestly vocations.

Father Faller said he was at a vocation directors’ national conference when he heard that it takes at least three invitations from three different people for a young man to seriously consider an invitation to the priesthood.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, who served as vocations director for the Archdiocese of San Francisco while concurrently serving as president of › Marin Catholic High School, told Father Faller that he asked young people at a youth event why priestly vocations were so low in their diocese.

The reason that rose to the top was not about the sex abuse scandals or the vow of celibacy.

“They told him nobody had ever asked them,” said Father Faller.

While countries like South Korea and certain countries in Africa are experiencing vocation booms, the Western world, including Europe, “is struggling” with new priestly vocations, according to Father Faller.

Some dioceses do better than others, he said, but the reasons may be more pastoral than regional.

“For whatever reason, a certain diocese might have more parishes with pastors who are intentional about trying to invite young people to consider the priesthood,” said Father Faller.

He admits some priests are just better at expressing zeal for the priesthood than others, but paraphrased the words of Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

“If we are not joyful about our priestly ministry, we are not going to attract anybody,” he said.

The Bay Area’s unique challenge

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has a unique contributing issue, according to Father Faller: the scarcity of young families in parishes due to the high cost of living here. San Francisco is the sixth most expensive city in the U.S. to reside, according to U.S. World & News Report.

“Most young families, if they are going to have multiple kids, start considering moving out of the area,” said Father Faller, who grew up in Marin County, one of four boys. Most of the young adults who were raised here can’t afford to live here, so many go elsewhere to raise a family.

“My two older brothers each have four kids,” he said. “There is no way they can afford to live here.”

Priests coming from other dioceses would be shocked by how few families we have in our parishes, he said. Fewer families in our pews means fewer young men and women going to Mass and participating in the liturgy and parish life.

“We just don’t have as much of a pool to draw from for new vocations,” said Father Faller.

The high price of a priest shortage

In a poster for Vocations Awareness Week, Pope Francis’ words in the headline trumpet the essential value of the priesthood: There Can Be No Eucharist Without the Priesthood.

The priest shortage can negatively impact parish life, and the pastor himself, in multiple other ways, said Father Faller.

“What has become more common is that priests have to take on more than one parish, or more than one role,” said Father Faller, who was ordained in 2015. Case in point, he said, are his separate roles as vocation director, director of seminarians and chaplain of Junipero Serra High School.

All of those roles require something different, he said.

“My ability to fulfill all those roles is somewhat limited from what it could be because of the lack of enough priests.”

For two or more parishes sharing one pastor, it means people might not always have a priest immediately available when they need one. It can also become painful for the priest, Father Faller said.

“He can start to have a divided heart, knowing he’s got to serve people in both parishes,” he said. “He’s able to say yes to fewer things.”

The discretionary invitation

Father Faller said that while it’s not necessary to overthink reaching out to a priestly prospect, an invitation can fall flat if not thoughtfully made.

“Some people, priests and laity alike, might feel any young woman coming to Mass should be invited to be a religious sister,” he said. “Or, if it’s a young man at Mass, he should be a priest. A cattle-call approach can diminish the power of invitation, making it seem less special or credible.”

Observe the single men in your parish who not only come to Mass regularly, but who take the liturgy and parish life seriously, advised Father Faller. Wait for the right moment to have a conversation about the priesthood. And don’t overlook more mature men, he said. Seminarians are accepted from age 18 up until the age of 50.

An older person might need the invitation even more because they might think it’s not a possibility anymore, he said. They might think it’s too late, that the ship has sailed.

Father Faller said all priests of the Archdiocese of San Francisco have been offered a slim booklet called “Lend Your Voice To Christ,” subtitled “a helpful guide for priests to call forth men to the priesthood.”

“It is meant to encourage priests to kind of take ownership of, for a lack of better words, finding their replacement in the future,” he said. 

To learn more about joining the priesthood, visit sfpriest.org

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.