ELMHURST — God needs more workers to toil in his vineyard, so they’re putting up the “Help Wanted” sign at St. Bartholomew Church.
The Elmhurst church has launched a grassroots effort to find future priests and nuns.
As a first step, Father Luis Laverde, the pastor, established a vocations committee and tapped Father Andrew Tsui, the parochial vicar, and Mother Maria Amador, the superior of the Preachers of Christ and Mary, to serve as co-chairs. The committee they are leading is made up of parishioners active in faith formation, youth ministry, and sports programs.
Members bounced ideas off one another at their first meeting, a lively session that took place on Friday, Oct. 20. “You are all here because you are very creative and you are already engaged in the parish,” Mother Maria told them.
Among their ideas: holding a vocations festival, promoting vocations on social media platforms like TikTok, sponsoring a poster contest, and hosting a career day at St. Bartholomew Catholic Academy featuring priests and nuns as guest speakers.
In addition, priests and nuns will visit classrooms to talk to students about the possibility of living the religious life.
“The Catholic Church at this moment, around the world, is having difficulty with vocations,” Father Laverde explained. “In our churches, in our communities, we can promote the calling.”
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the number of priests in the U.S. has declined by 42% over the past 50 years. CARA, which studies the Catholic Church, also found that the number of nuns has declined. There are currently 36,000 women religious in the U.S. — a 77% drop from 50 years ago.
Father Tsui, who was ordained last year, told the committee that participation by parishioners is vital if the effort to increase vocations is to succeed. “It should not be one person in charge of vocations. All of you are going to help us,” he added.
Father Tsui, the first American-born Chinese priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, said it is important that any effort to foster vocations should reflect the parish’s diversity so that young people can see that it’s possible for people of different races and nationalities — not just white people — to be called.
“We are predominantly Hispanic and Asian,” he explained, adding that as a young man, when he saw advertisements promoting the priesthood, “I never saw anyone who looked like me.”
Even with all of the activities planned by the committee, prayer will be the major focus, Father Tsui said. Starting in November, there will be a prayer for vocations at every Mass. The parish will have prayer cards printed up and distributed.
Committee member Cecilia Navore liked hearing that. “Imagine if we didn’t pray for priests. We would have nothing. We need our priests,” she said. Navore, who is Mexican American, belongs to a Spanish-speaking parish group that gathers every Thursday to pray for vocations. She is delighted that the entire parish will now be asked to pray.
Father Laverde stressed that the committee’s work is part of a long-term campaign that might not bear fruit for years. But he added that between St. Bartholomew Church and Academy, the numbers look promising, at least in terms of possibilities. The parish has 750 children in its faith formation program. There are 175 students in the academy. And the parish has 60 altar servers.
“It’s impossible that God is not calling someone from that group,” he explained.
The effort stands a better chance of working if young people are given the chance to discover the joys of religious life themselves rather than be lectured to, said committee member Sharleny Castillo.
“Through my experience of being in the youth group and in religious education, I’ve seen that the best way to teach kids about God is to put them in a position where they can see who God is for themselves,” she explained.
One good way to do that, she said, is to give kids a chance to see priests and nuns as people much like themselves. For example, Father Tsui recently kicked a soccer ball around with young people in the sports program and Mother Maria played volleyball with kids — fun activities that made them more relatable.
Father Christopher Bethge, vocations director for the diocese, said St. Bartholomew’s work is important. “When it comes to trying to increase vocations, the more people doing the work, the better,” he said.
Father Bethge is aware of the declining numbers of priests in the U.S. but said he is undaunted. “It is easy to become discouraged by numbers. But we have four young men entering seminary this year. And remember, Jesus started with just 12,” he said.