Bring up the topic of celibacy at a social gathering, if you dare. Some people will roll their eyes and proclaim it impossible, while others will tell jokes about it.

It’s little wonder, though, since we live in a world where sex sells everything from cars to cookies – and many believe that living without a sexual relationship is impossible.

Thus, it was not surprising when, with the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, many Catholics began clamoring for an end to the celibacy requirement for priests as a way to solve the vocation problem.

There’s no doubt we have a problem. The shortage of vocations is real, especially in the United States and other wealthy nations, where it has become commonplace for Catholic school children to graduate without ever having being taught by a priest or nun. Also, many parishes are limping along with only one spiritual father to tend the flock, while others have to share a priest on Sunday.  

Allowing priests to marry is hardly the solution, though, given that vocations are also dwindling among Protestant communities, which have married clergy. Still, you might ask: What else could possibly be keeping the numbers down?

In a nation where we call ourselves “consumers,” the answer may not be that surprising: It is our love affair with materialism.

The Church is not short on vocations from developing nations, where living simply is simply the way people live, while in well-heeled nations like our own, vocations are in serious decline. It cannot be true that God has ceased calling young men to the priesthood in richer nations, but perhaps their ears are not attuned to hearing Him, because other voices are louder.

One voice is advertising. Advertisers preach to little children that buying things is the path to happiness. Whether they are bored and unhappy, or celebratory and joyous, children are encouraged to get more toys and games.

A simple birthday party is nearly a thing of the past, because advertisers have upped the ante on entertainment for little ones. No wonder most children think luxuries are their birthright, and clamor for their own rooms, TV sets, computers and cell phones.

The danger with consumerism is that people define themselves by what they have, not by who they are.

Pope John Paul II made it clear that consumerism was not just a sin of the rich, because poor people can be “consumed” with envy for what they lack, just as rich folks can be obsessed by their possessions.

Too often, advertisers lure adults into believing that happiness consists in owning luxury homes and driving snazzy cars. Little wonder, then, that when Johnny ponders his future, he is more inclined to look at careers in business or computers than to heed the call of Jesus.

After all, following the humble fisherman means giving up the possibility of climbing the ladder of wealth. Johnny would not be able to impress others by the neighborhood he lives in or the flashy vacations he takes.

Of course, living a simple existence makes perfect sense for priests, who are supposed to model Jesus to the world. After all, God Himself could have chosen to be born into a wealthy family, but chose instead a poor one. Still, the spiritual problems associated with consumerism are enormous, and won’t be solved overnight. Meanwhile, what can average Catholics do about the vocation shortage?

For one, we can pray for a change of heart toward materialism. For parents, this may mean refusing to buy Johnny every new gizmo that comes along, and examining their own bad habits when it comes to money.

If parents embrace “shopping therapy” when times are bad, children will mimic that behavior. Why not show children, instead, that the cure for all ills is turning to Jesus in prayer and the Eucharist?

Also, if children see their adults enjoying simple things, such as taking walks, feeding ducks at the lake, reading and playing games, the children will be less inclined to believe that money is a magic elixir.

To stem the tide of me-ism that fuels consumerism, parents might encourage children to give a portion of their allowance to the poor. Even if it is only a few dollars, children will learn that money can do enormous good, if it is not squandered. It seems obvious that boys who understand there is more to life than spending money will be more inclined to say “yes” to God if He calls them.

And surely God is still calling men worldwide to serve in the vineyard, although it may be harder to heed the call in nations like ours, where the values that Jesus embraced have been largely tossed out.

The words of Christ reveal the undying truth. He said, “Whatever you have done for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” This means that, when we take care of the prisoners, the lonely, the sick and the dying, when we give hope to the weary, bread to the hungry and love to the downtrodden, we come face to face with God.

These are tasks that priests perform every day. And, really, could any job on earth be more important than that?

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