Here is why so few men and women are becoming members of religious orders today. They have lost the world required for their survival. They are like fish whose pond has been drained.
As a child I lived in a Catholic world in Decatur, Illinois. My parish was my world. It was made sacred by priests and sisters and a cycle of religious rituals centered on the church. It was easy for me to see myself growing up to become a leader in that world. I recall calculating that being a priest would require hearing confessions on Saturday afternoon, which would rule out listening to Notre Dame football games, but that was a sacrifice that would have to be made. It would be worth it.
I was never a great fan of football, but listening to Notre Dame games was part of my Catholic world. Notre Dame was our fortress against the secular intellectual world.
We were reinforced in our world by constant reminders of the important people who were Catholic: Bing Crosby, Bishop Sheen, Danny Thomas. The outside world recognized our world.
In Decatur, we were a minority. In contrast to Springfield, where my parents grew up and where we regularly visited relatives, Decatur was hostile territory for Catholics. None of the important people in Decatur were Catholic. The only time we Catholics were featured in the newspaper was when our school, St. James, outsold the entire rest of the city in World War II war bonds.
My father remarked once that he did not take his faith seriously until he and my mother moved to Decatur. In his eyes, no Catholic in Decatur could be taken seriously as a leader. We were set apart.
Admittedly, that was my perception. In actual fact, there probably were Catholics in important roles in the town. But in my mind, we were the victims of segregation and prejudice, and those things reinforced our identity.
Fast forward to present-day Quincy, Illinois. We have here in Quincy a parish, St. Rose, that is officially a "Latin" parish--all the liturgies are conducted in Latin, Latin as it was used before the Second Vatican Council. There are students at Quincy University who practice a spirituality appropriate to that Latin environment: Benediction, recitation of the rosary before Mass, women wearing a head scarf during Mass. At least some of the younger priests that I see in our diocese seem to be cooperating in re-creating that world. I respect and admire such people. But I think they are fighting a losing battle. Their problem is that the world that they are trying to re-create is no longer a viable world for most Catholics.
The boundaries are too porous. "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)?" was a song made popular after World War I. You can hold children in a segregated world through grade school, and maybe even through high school, but when they hit college, off they go. The world opens up--the world in the sense of new possibilities. As someone who has spent his life teaching in a Catholic college, I see the situation. Over the years Quincy University has sent young men and women out into society to become genuine leaders, both secular and religious, but they are not the kind of leaders that the world of my childhood would have prepared. To be a leader in the worlds most people live in today, you cannot limit yourself to the world of segregated Catholicism.
Ecumenism did us in, as did success in politics (John Kennedy) and economics.
So what do we do? We need leaders in the Church, both men and women. Leaders have to live in the world that the rest of the community lives in. We have to create a world that will allow all of us to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the midst of unlimited information, profitable ways of making money, dreams of happy marriages and families, and philosophical and theological challenges. Within that world, we must be able to motivate some of us to become leaders.
We need priests, but not clericalism. Priests are people who lead us in knowing God and worshipping God. Clerics are people who survive by being a special caste supported by religiously devoted people.
We need women religious leaders, not the kind of "nuns" that used to enliven our communities. Women leaders today cannot be assumed to be subservient to men. They must have the freedom to initiate things. They must be seen as equal to men in finding ways to share faith effectively with others.
Above all, we need to create a world where religious leaders can flourish, but a world that is not set in opposition to the rest of the world. As followers of Jesus, we will need to challenge the rest of the world at times, but we cannot build our identities on challenge.
Our "vocation recruitment" efforts have been too limited to seeking out individuals to join us. We need to create cultures of faith and worship where the need for leadership will be obvious and rewarded. Only then will our "vocation problem" approach a solution. We may never have enough leaders. The harvest will always be abundant and the laborers few. But we can do better than we are doing right now.