January 31st, Feast of St. John Bosco
This week, the Catholic Church in the United States of America celebrates Catholic Schools Week. The US Bishops ask us to consider the great blessing which Catholic schools are to our Church and to our community at large.
During Catholic Schools Week, we call to mind the fact that Catholic schools benefit not only the families who send their children there, but the whole Church and all society. Every Catholic, even if he has no children in Catholic schools (even if he has never had children in the schools), should see Catholic schools as his schools – every Catholic benefits from Catholic schools, and every Catholic has a duty of supporting Catholic schools.
Today, I would like to point out one way in which every Catholic benefits from Catholics schools: Catholic schools produce vocations to the priesthood and religious life. It is particularly fitting that we consider this benefit today, the feast of St. John Bosco – the schools which he founded produced over six thousand vocations to the priesthood during his life-time (and countless more since his death).
St. John Bosco inspired over 6,000 vocations to the priesthood before his death
St. John Bosco, the founder of the Salesian Society, was born in a small hamlet near Catelnuovo, Piedmont, Italy on 16 August 1815. He died on 31 January 1888, and was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934.
Don Bosco was filled with a great charity for the poor boys of Turin and other cities, and so he dedicated his life to the education and care of street children, delinquents and other poor youths. His devotion to St. Francis de Sales (which led him to dedicate his society to this great Doctor of the Church) directed him to employ gentler teaching methods based on love and kindness rather than punishment.
In addition to providing good education, safety, and religious instruction to the boys, St. John Bosco’s schools provided the young men with the opportunity of discerning a vocation to the priesthood or religious life. The statistics are amazing:
“At the time of Don Bosco's death in 1888 there were 250 houses of the Salesian Society in all parts of the world, containing 130,000 children, and from which there annually went out 18,000 finished apprentices. […] Up to 1888 over six thousand priests had gone forth from Don Bosco's institutions, 1,200 of whom had remained in the society.” (From the Catholic Encyclopedia)
It is often said that a priest may be happy if he helps two young men to discern a call to the priesthood – one to replace himself, and another to serve for the expansion of the Church. St. John Bosco directly helped six thousand young men to answer the call! All this was possible only through the Catholic schools that Don Bosco founded. Who can doubt the importance of Catholic schools?
St. John Bosco was himself very pleased with this good work accomplished through his schools, and he wrote (in 1883, when there were still many more vocations to come): “I am happy now! I have careful statistics drawn up and we have found that more than two thousand diocesan priests [not counting the religious] have come from our houses. Let us thank the Lord and his holy Mother for having given us the means to do all this good.” Further studies after the Saints death confirmed that the number of vocations was even higher than he had realized!
An example: The Diocese of Great Falls – Billings (my diocese)
The role which Catholic schools play in helping a man to discover and answer the call to the priesthood hits very close to home for me. I myself first thought of becoming a priest through the influence of the Catholic schools in my home town of Billings, MT. Could God have used some other means? Surely. But, in point of historical fact, I (and the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings) owe my vocation to the Billings Catholic School System, and to Billings Central Catholic High School in particular. Thus, in my own life, the connection between Catholic schools and priestly vocations is most significant.
Further, though it is only a small example from a small diocese, I cannot help but mention the impact which Catholic schools have had on vocations to the priesthood in recent years for the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings, in eastern Montana. I will speak to this connection from my experience as a seminarian and priest for the Diocese.
It has been about ten years since I entered the seminary, and I have personally known every seminarian for the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings since that time. In the past ten years, twelve young men who had attended some level of Catholic schools entered the seminary for our Diocese. Now, some have left, some have been ordained, and the largest group of them are still in the seminary – but, the point is that twelve men have entered seminary to discern this call after having attended some level of Catholic school education.
While we would certainly desire this number to be greater, it will be good to compare this statistic with the number of men in the past ten years who have studied as seminarians for our diocese without having gone to any level of Catholic schools: Two. In the past ten years, there have only been two men who did not go to Catholic schools and who studied as seminarians for the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings.
Now, to be fair, I am not including in these statistics a couple of special cases. There have been a couple of older gentlemen who entered the seminary in their fifties, but these are obviously special cases (and, in point of fact, they may well have gone to Catholic schools in their youth, but I do not know for sure). Additionally, our diocese has ordained one man who used to be an Episcopalian priest.
However, setting these exceptional cases aside, the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings has a ratio of 12 to 2 in favor of Catholic schools, when it comes to vocational discernment in recent history. And this is all the more significant considering that our diocese has only a very limited number of Catholic schools!
Considering that there are far more than ten times as many Catholic boys in eastern Montana who attend public schools than those who attend Catholic schools, the fact that only two from the public schools have entered the seminary (as opposed to the twelve who had attended Catholic schools) is simply astonishing.
Who can reasonably doubt the positive impact which Catholic schools have had in producing priestly vocations in the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings? Can there be any doubt that promoting Catholic schools in this diocese will help to produce more vocations?
Catholic schools: A part of the solution to the priest shortage
Now, I’m not going to say that Catholic schools are the whole answer to gaining more vocations to the priesthood. Indeed, I do not even claim that the Catholic schools are the most important factor – other realities, like family life, have a far greater impact on a young man’s ability to discern a call to the priesthood.
Still, there can be no doubt that Catholic schools have played and will continue to play a significant role in producing priests for the Church. For this reason, we all should thank the good Lord for the gift of Catholic schools, and we should remember that (whether or not we have a child in the schools) every Catholic school is our Catholic school.