The Malta Independent 15 June 2024, Saturday
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Newly-ordained priest says ‘people think vocations don’t make sense nowadays’

Kyle Patrick Camilleri Sunday, 19 May 2024, 08:00 Last update: about 27 days ago

Fr Rob Rizzo, a newly ordained priest, believes that the crisis in priestly vocations is a result of two issues – according to him, people nowadays “don’t see sense in lifelong commitment”, and they also lack awareness into what priestly life is about.

“There is this sense that we’ve lost this idea of a lifelong commitment,” he said in an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday. “Doing something for your whole life doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Fr Rob Rizzo is a 33-year-old newly ordained Jesuit priest. He has made two decisions for life: to be both a Jesuit and a priest. He was ordained a month ago, on 20 April 2024, but he admits that he does not enjoy highlighting his ordained priesthood, saying that it is perceived by many people as “almost like a taboo”.

In explaining why people think lifelong choices do not make sense, he told this newsroom that since his recent ordination, people have asked him how he took this decision for the rest of his life. He’s responded to this question by comparing his decision to another sacramental vocation: marriage. Fr. Rizzo said that “it is difficult to put to words why a person chooses to marry one particular person, though they just know that it’s the right decision for them,” and that he feels a similar way to his vocation.

Similarly, he explained that people nowadays are not being rewarded for their loyalty and that gaining the upper hand is more prioritised in today’s day and age. As an example, he used the job market, saying that nowadays, people can negotiate for a better package when changing jobs – a stark difference to what happened not too long ago, where it was very common for people to have the same job for 40 years, he said.

While Fr. Rizzo said that this is understandable on an individual level, he remarked that “the system is rewarding things that are not virtuous.”

The other aspect behind the priestly vocation crisis, in Fr Rizzo’s opinion, is the lack of knowledge by the public about what a priest’s life actually consists of.

This opinion is partially influenced by his own experience, as his personal journey into priesthood first began out of curiosity and ignorance towards how priests went on with their lives. At the start of his twenties, just over a decade ago, Fr Rizzo was thinking about what he wanted to do with his life.

He thus began speaking to priests to entertain his curiosity as he “had no clue what a priest does.”

Photos: Curia


He started learning about this life slowly, and eventually found out about the existence of different orders, e.g., Franciscans, Augustinians, etc. He admitted that he had initially thought that Franciscans and Augustinians were “specialisations” that priests chose after Seminary (after discovering that he too had to go to Seminary), rather than ecclesiastical orders within the Church.

Fr Rizzo then realised that the Jesuit life was his calling during his two years in the novitiate, i.e., the start of one’s journey into priesthood, where church novices can see if the life is for them through several experiences, while being judged by other senior Jesuits to see if they are truly fit for this vocation.

“I thought they just celebrated mass and that was it,” Fr Rizzo said, “Most people don’t know what the life of a priest is, unless you’re involved in a parish. The average person has no clue what the life of a priest or a religious Franciscan, Jesuit, Augustinian is.”

“What I was so surprised about was that I had no clue that this life even existed,” Fr. Rizzo remarked, “I don’t know why, but we don’t manage to share what our life is.”

Last February, this newsroom spoke with Fr Charles Mallia, the Provincial Prior of the Carmelite Order, and in this interview, Fr Mallia stated that allowing Catholic priests to marry, in his view, could increase vocation numbers. Hence, he agreed with Archbishop Scicluna’s opinion that the Catholic Church should revisit its millennium-old celibacy rule for its priests.

Fr Rizzo told this newsroom that he is against the idea that this rule should be revisited to tackle the lack of priestly vocations. The young priest argued that it is unlikely that people will manage to follow two vocations, “especially if many struggle with just one.” He also clarified that if this rule was to be removed, Jesuits would be unaffected, since they take vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity anyway.

He noted that there is a lot to consider if the Church, namely the Pope, had to seriously think about introducing this major change. He said that this would greatly impact the period of discernment that priests in training take before their ordination. Fr Rizzo described this discernment period as one where a person contemplates between “two good choices” – generally separate vocations such as marriage and priesthood.

Following his recent ordination, Fr Rizzo is near the end of his educational journey, as he is preparing to begin a Master’s degree in Education and Artificial Intelligence (AI) at the University of Edinburgh.

He does not view priesthood as a goal he has achieved or met, but “it’s another thing that God gives me that I can use to serve people.” This aligns with the teachings of one of the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola, who had rejected the idea of priesthood being an end-goal.

During his training and formation years that led up to his ordination last month, Fr Rizzo spent some time working at the St Aloysius Chaplaincy as part of his time in regency – a period where someone can work with Jesuits; this experience is meant to mould these persons into Jesuit life by practice. Working at St. Aloysius College 6th Form, he learned a lot about youths during this time.

Fr Rizzo went on to explain that in contrast to the days he was brought up in not too long ago, “many youths nowadays do not see much of a future in front of them.” In this respect, he is asking how he can accompany people when tomorrow looks scarier than yesterday.

The Jesuit priest stated that while he believes everyone should enjoy waking up in the morning, since life should become more fulfilling day-by-day, he said, many youths don’t see it this way. Rather, with tomorrow looking scarier than yesterday, he said that for youths, life can turn into “rat race” that can end up feeling “meaningless.”

Fr Rizzo said that growing up, he did not share this sentiment held by many of today’s youths since he perceived the future as a time filled with potential opportunities. He described how young people today, with views of uncertainty and concern towards the future through issues such as climate change and exorbitant housing prices, have bleaker outlooks for the future than the youths of previous generations did.

In the course of his priesthood, Fr Rizzo wishes to help people connect with God. Comparing his vocation to the popular parable of Jesus the Shepherd, Fr Rizzo imagines himself to be a sheep within the herd that knows how to cry out and knows where his shepherd is going.

Describing himself to be “no one special”, he says that he hopes to always use language that people understand, especially since “people tend to brush off conversations relating to God or Jesus.”

In this regard, he is of the opinion that “generally, many people have lost belief – the reality of believing.” He strongly believes that rediscovering this “is a real treasure that can change our life.”

While Malta is filled with self-identified Catholics, the majority of these people are non-practising Catholics who do not attend weekly Sunday mass. Speaking to anthropologist Ranier Fsadni last month, Fsadni had spoken to this newsroom about this, and went as far to say that Catholicism is no longer part of the Maltese identity in practice.

Fsadni had also remarked that for an increasing number of people, Sunday mass attendance is declining because “the mass is boring, rather than compelling, beautiful or true, while the social taboo on non-attendance has gone.”

Fr Rizzo admitted that “there are things we need to do differently” and said that the Church often ends up tackling the symptoms instead of the cause behind people opting not to practise their faith. He dreams that he can help people fall in love with God through Mass and also wants to promote the sacraments of Holy Communion and reconciliation to believers as methods for them to sustain their relationship with Him.

“If people don’t love God through the mass, then whatever we change is only going to have temporary results,” Fr Rizzo said. “What I dream of doing is helping people fall in love with God through the Mass, because then, they can survive any boring Mass.”

“When we lose belief and understanding, [Mass] ends up being something that we have to do,” he added, saying that he attends Mass every day because he wants to, not because he has to.

Fr Rizzo was also recently made aware by someone who spoke to him that some people genuinely believe in God, but due to various reasons, do not see Mass as an experience with communion or prayer with God. He hopes to educate people that Mass is “the fullest expression of a community being in communion with God.”

He then noted that some people might say that they pray as a sort of compensatory excuse for not going to Mass. For these people, he said that “we must accompany them to help them believe.”

Questioning why Mass, the Eucharist, or confession aren’t considered as prayer to the people, Fr Rizzo said that “besides personal prayer, they should be one of the pinnacles that help us grow communion with God.”

Addressing people who may be interested in Jesuit life and/or priesthood, Fr Rizzo said that the Jesuit life is what brings him most fulfilment in his life. He suggested that these people pray and get to know God, but also said that “there is no rush” and that irrespective of what path they decide to take, “all your life experiences are valued.”

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