It was announced yesterday that Archbishop Burke would be leaving St. Louis to become what is in effect the chief justice of the Catholic Church’s supreme court. I will miss Archbishop Burke for many reasons, and the Archdiocese of St. Louis is losing a great leader, no matter how the St. Louis Post Dispatch tries to demonize him.
However, I want to put to sleep a myth concerning Archbishop Burke: everyone seems to think that he is responsible for the vocation surge that we are having in St. Louis. Undoubtedly he has done an outstanding job keeping the morale up among his seminarians. Unlike many other bishops, he makes time to talk to each of his seminarians individually, listening to our concerns and keeping us happy. So if anything, Archbishop Burke has done an outstanding job keeping seminarians in the seminary.
But with that said, he is not the only reason for St. Louis’ surge in vocations. A simple look at the number of men entering the seminary seems to prove my point. Before 2002, St. Louis had about 15 men entering the seminary every year. Some years, we were close to having classes of 20, but we were never quite able to reach that number. Then in 2002, the priest scandals broke. Morale among seminarians hit an all-time low, as one of our vocations directors was accused and later found guilty of six counts of sodomy. A large number of seminarians dropped out, and only 5 men entered seminary that year. In fact, one man–who later did enter the seminary–said that he was driving up to the seminary to turn in his application when he heard the news about this vocation director. He immediately turned his car around and went home.
The Archdiocese had fewer vocations over the next few years. But even in 2002, Fr. Michael Butler, the head vocations director in St. Louis, said that Americans have a short memory, and that on average people forget about such shocking scandals after approximately four years. Sure enough, by 2006 the number of vocations for the Archdiocese had returned to the same levels that they were before the scandals broke. We have been seeing high numbers of seminarians every year since then. If Archbishop Burke is responsible for the surge in vocations in St. Louis, then how does everyone account for the large number of men entering seminary before Archbishop Burke even arrived? No: Archbishop Burke was icing on the cake, a more public symbol of the renaissance that was already occuring in St. Louis, a renaissance which he helped to augment.
I study in Washington DC, and at least once a week I hear seminarians from other dioceses praising Archbishop Burke and lamenting the fact that their dioceses cannot have a bishop who is so good at recruiting men to the seminary, or offering him some other high praise. What these seminarians fail to realize is that while St. Louis was indeed lucky to have such a great Archbishop, it was due to good fortune that we have so many vocations. The secret to our success does not rest in our former Archbishop, but in less earth shattering ways. In St. Louis, we stress Eucharistic adoration; we are beginning to form summer camps where teenagers feel comfortable and safe living out their faith, if only for a week. We are seeing young, holy priests preaching the Gospel in truth and charity, and actively promoting priestly vocations among young men at the parish level.
The recipe for success in St. Louis can easily be replicated elsewhere: other diocese don’t have to wait to get an outstanding bishop in order to replicate St. Louis’ success. As our vocation director reports, the recipe for success is very simple: if you make the opportunities available for young men and women to come closer to God, the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
I will miss Archbishop Burke. May he remember St. Louis as fondly as his seminarians remember him.