Your Excellency:

Please forgive my extended holographic hiatus.  What with the “priestly scandals,” the “bishop scandals,” the decline and death of one pope and the election of another, I assumed you and your fellow shepherds had your hands full.  Besides, I had little to offer by way of helpful suggestion.  How could I?  Our diocesan paper reports good news everywhere in the diocese, while the empty confessionals versus the hordes of communicants at each Mass continue to indicate that American Catholics have to a great extent vanquished sin.

First, let me congratulate you and all the other American bishops.  You gallant gentlemen have weathered tempestuous storms and stilled troubled waters.  You have broken up the homosexual networks in the seminaries and chanceries, separating the wheat from the chaff (or is that the weak from the daft?).  You have raised funds to pay for the massive lawsuits stemming from sexual abuse.  You have tapped the brakes on the American schism with Rome.  (All right, all right, I admit it.  I’m messing with your miter, Your Excellency.  Forgive me.  Your fellow bishops have apparently decided that “gay” priests, like the poor, will be with us always, that certain dioceses will pay out their lawsuits by selling schools and churches built three and four generations ago on the backs of the working-class Catholic faithful, and that the best way to take instructions from Rome is with eyes closed and hands clamped firmly over the ears.)  Now that everything’s hunky-dory in our American Church—meaning, of course, that the media deem it so—I wish only to suggest some minor solutions, some fine tuning, if you please, regarding the diminished numbers of men joining the priesthood.

As everyone knows, Your Excellency, the number of priests and seminarians in the United States in the last 40 years has plummeted more dramatically than the vertical drop on New Jersey’s Kingda Ka roller coaster.  Experts have given various reasons for this steep decline.  Some blame it on the general exodus from the Church following Vatican II.  Some cite the high rate of contraception among Catholics, meaning that parents who now rear only Little Jim and Little Jenny, as opposed to their own parents who once brought up Jim, Jenny, Joey, Johnny, and Theresa, are not quite as willing to encourage a child to enter the priesthood.  Still others contend that the priesthood has lost much of its allure partly as a result of lay intrusions on priestly duties, as evidenced most directly by those straggling squads of readers and eucharistic ministers who descend every Sunday onto the altar of even the smallest parish.  Some commentators have further remarked that young men perceive a decline of robust masculinity among our priests, which led many Catholics in the pews to suspect the existence of a pink mafia in the seminaries long before the media shed light on the recent scandals.

To dismantle the first three of these roadblocks to the priesthood would require major changes within the Church.  Those who fled the guitar Masses, liturgical dance, and general nuttiness that followed Vatican II are now long gone.  Those who use the pill or prophylactics—about 90 percent of young Catholic couples—might abandon the Church wholesale if sternly warned that contraception, a grave sin according to Church dogma, may endanger their immortal souls.  The squadrons of laity who have invaded the altars, offices, and chanceries of the Church might easily be cropped back, but this action would require many of your fellow bishops to grow a spine.

What of the final obstacle listed above?  Is it possible to change the next generation’s perception of the priesthood?  Are there ways to make our seminaries appear once again as bastions of manliness and dignity?  Absolutely.  Please allow me to share a few ideas with you.

First, young men love challenges of all kinds.  Since many of our seminaries have abandoned their more demanding courses—Latin, for example, and the great theological classics—in favor of women’s studies and counseling sessions, let me suggest that we require our budding seminarians to attend a Marine Corps boot camp for 12 weeks of rigorous training.  This training will build their bodies, challenge their spirits, and teach them toughness.  Such an arduous initial challenge would surely attract young men to the priesthood.  I can see the diocesan advertising campaign now: “The Few.  The Proud.  The Priests.”

Second, young men like to appear cool.  Enticing them into our seminaries and into the priesthood means making seminarians and seminary training cool.  In addition to the Marine Corps training, first- and second-year seminarians could be taught boxing and karate.  Not only will these activities draw young men into the seminary, but they will also serve as great stress relievers from classes taught by agnostic professors and castrating nuns.  Who knows?  Such sports may even build the self-confidence needed by our priests to confront tinpot parish dictators and blockhead diocesan commissars.  In addition to this martial-arts training, we might consider teaching our aspiring priests how to handle firearms.  (OK, OK, we’ll excuse the Franciscans.)  Farseeing bishops might even issue sidearms to their priests, making concealed weapons as much a part of the standard equipment as a priestly collar.  Despite all the efforts of the matrons, male and female, in our country, adolescent males remain attracted to small arms.  Some parishioners may be offended at the thought of a pistol-packing priest, but the presence of weapons, as evidenced by the behavior of everyone from the medieval knight to the Texas cowboy, has a profoundly positive effect on good manners.  Certainly, the possibility of gunplay would make parishioners with a bone to pick a little more cautious in their approach to the priest.

In the beginning of their final year at seminary, each seminarian would be declared a “Man in Black.”  He would receive a Black Classic Hip Length Harley Davidson Leather Jacket ($200) and a pair of Oakley Riddle Ash Sunglasses ($200).  We might possibly encourage him to wear his hair spiked or to add a discreet earring.  To top it off, these third-year seminarians should also be given black Dodge Vipers ($81,000 apiece, and, yes, I realize the name is unfortunate, but keep in mind we’re trying to appeal to virile young men.  A Civic simply doesn’t do the trick, in design or name).  You bishops might further reinforce this sense of manly toughness by encouraging newly ordained priests to forgo the crosses, lambs, and flowers traditionally embroidered on their robes in exchange for flaming swords, death’s heads, and clenched fists.

Imagine, Your Excellency, these third-year seminarians leading retreats for young men two or three times a year.  Can’t you just see it, eight or ten seminarians arriving in sparkling Vipers, whipping up to the curb, stepping all a-glitter onto the pavement, tugging on their leather jackets, adjusting their sunglasses in the blazing sun, walking tall and proud into church?

A pipe dream, you say?  Well, Your Excellency, you’re probably right.  The Men in Black proposal is probably just a little too fascistic in nature, a tad too militaristic, for the Church, though many of our young men, in terms of fashion and style, favor both the fascistic and the militaristic.  Anyway, skip that idea.  Forget that I ever mentioned it.  Instead, let me make a more practical suggestion.  First, however, I must tell you a story.

I used to work in a bookstore.  Every summer, an Episcopalian clergyman from Tennessee responsible for priestly formation in his diocese would visit our store and root through our Catholic books from 50 and 60 years ago.  One afternoon, he picked up a book, published in the 1930’s, that addressed seminary curricula and practices.  Our Anglican friend became immediately engrossed in this book.  He read to me at length about the rigid course of study practiced in those long-abandoned institutions, clucking his tongue at the hours of daily prayer, shaking his head in wondrous admiration at the intense efforts on the part of teachers and spiritual directors to mold seminarians into tough men and tough priests.  After reading a short section on the efficacy of fasting and physical mortification, my Episcopalian acquaintance clapped the book closed and asked plaintively, “How did they get their students to do these things?”

A good question, Your Excellency, and one for which I have a ready answer.  Those seminarians did those things because their priests and professors challenged them.  Why not issue a similar challenge to our young men of today?  Boys in 2005 won’t join the priesthood for the salary, the retirement benefits, the 30 days of annual vacation.  No, young men join the priesthood because they are idealists.  They join the priesthood because the Holy Spirit has called them to do so.  These would-be priests want a hard life, a life of challenges on every level.  They want to live in and for Christ.  They want to die for Christ.

Why not found a seminary that is truly concerned about molding men into priests?  Why not found the West Point of seminaries, the boot camp of priestly training?  Why not start a seminary in which candidates find themselves challenged mentally, spiritually, and even physically every day?  Those priests, professors, bishops, and abbots who ran the old seminaries weren’t fools.  They realized that a priest had to be tough, that his job would be long, filled with dangers and pitfalls, that he would daily face a thousand temptations ranging from gluttony to despair.  Seminarians don’t become strong priests by watching television, by taking wimpy courses, by enjoying numerous vacations, or by having weekends to themselves.  They get tough and develop lifetime priestly habits by following a demanding schedule, by penance and prayer and vigorous struggle.

A pipe dream, you say again?  Perhaps.  But this pipe dream would cost less than a Viper and a leather jacket.  Besides, this pipe dream would work.  Those three years of hard training would help carry our good priests through their mission unto the end of their days.

Just a few thoughts for your consideration, Your Excellency.  Keeping you in my prayers,

Joe Ecclesia