This morning I concelebrated the 6:30 a.m. Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in Malden, MA with Fr. Richard Bakker, SMA, a Dutch priest who prepared to be a missionary in Africa, but was conscripted by the Dutch Air Force as a chaplain three weeks before his intended departure, and who then spent his life teaching French and Greek in seminary.
He grew up in Amsterdam, and was eight years old when WWII began. He lived just a five minute walk from the house where Anne Frank and her family hid. He told me how of the 253 Jews in his neighborhood, only three survived the war. "I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. All the children I played with were killed." His father was a Dutch diplomat in England who brought his family to the Netherlands for a vacation during the summer of 1939, and wasn't able to return to England because the war began. At the age of eight, he was told by his father to never speak English again. "I thought it was stupid! I didn't know Dutch. My father said, 'Don't even say stupid. It's English!'"
He recalled with great fondness how the Dominican sister who taught him in kindergarten (he repeated that grade because his language skills were so poor) told him, "Here, I'll help you learn Dutch." At the time he probably thought she was just being kind. She may well have been trying to save his life, and the life of his family.
He told me a story of Edith Stein. In 1939, the Carmelites moved Edith and her sister, Rose, from a convent in Germany to one just across the border in the Netherlands, which was a neutral country. When she arrived, it was cold, and the Carmelites didn't have the heat on. "Begging your pardon, sisters" Edith asked, "Why have you not turned on the heat?"
"We don't have heat. Holy poverty, you know."
Edith discovered the abbot of a local monastery was German, and she spoke to him of the Carmelites' situation. Soon they had a heating system. It worked for over sixty years, until a couple of years ago. The Carmelites still were very poor, and couldn't fix or replace it. "Let's ask for Sr. Edith's intercession," the Carmelites said. Sure enough, the heat came on again, and has worked for the last two years.
"I didn't talk about the war for decades," Fr. Bakker told me. "Then one day I was asked by a rabbi I know to speak at his synagogue about the war. A woman sat crying in the back throughout my talk. Afterward, she came up and said to me, 'It's all true. I lived in Amsterdam during the war, too.'"
Many, many Catholic Dutch men entered the seminary after the war. "There were 72 in my minor seminary class alone! But of the 18 men I was ordained with, all the others left and got married." As in this country, many Catholic soldiers during the horrors of the war made promises to God. My mother once told me a long time ago, when my father was still working as an engineer and had to fly occasionally to Europe or Japan, how guilty he felt about flying at all. "Why?" I asked. "Because during the war, when he was navigating B-25s over Japan, and so many of his friends were being killed, he promised God that if he was spared, he'd never fly in a plane again." How many other Catholic men made promises along the lines of, "Get me out of this hell, and I'll become a priest." Who knows how many of them who survived kept their promises? I've heard enough stories to believe their numbers were not insignificant.
People often look at the exodus of priests that occurred after the Second Vatican Council and blame it on the Council itself, or in the way it was interpreted. But men who entered the seminary after the war and were ordained in the early to mid-50s would have had been priests for 10-15 years by the time of the Council. They might have been in their early to mid-40s; still young enough to be husbands and fathers, and mature enough to realize the choice to become a priest may not have been entirely free.
Some people will think I'm just making excuses for men who should have persevered, or who gave in to human weakness, or who just decided that being a priest was too hard, or no longer fulfilling.
Rather, I think it's sad that we - or at least I - haven't heard their stories. Why did they become priests in the first place? What happened that made them choose to leave? These and other questions, as well as the answers we could glean, could go far in helping us help young men today discern their vocation. Such a discussion could also help us improve our seminary formation process, too, so that we don't experience another exodus in the future.