That the decline in vocations to the priesthood and the decline in vocations to marriage is occurring at the same time is probably not coincidental. I spoke on behalf of Cal Catholic with Father Joseph Illo, whose parish, San Francisco’s Star of the Sea, is defying the trend and producing both.

Author: “Father, Archbishop Cordileone has called you his “vocations parish.” He was referring to the number of religious vocations from Star of the Sea under your pastorate, but I was struck by something you said at Mass a few weeks ago, about the priest as a matchmaker. Can you expand on that?”

Father Illo: “Star has seen one man ordained (on Saturday) to the archdiocese, two go into the Dominicans, one into the Contemplatives of St. Joseph, and three enter formation for the priesthood in the archdiocese (two dropped out, and one still in the seminary). Of these eight, six were part of our young adults group. The priests put a lot of work into our young adults group, providing a weekly holy hour with confessions and attending their meeting almost every week after holy hour. We go on hikes, kayaking, bike rides, etc. with them, and many go on pilgrimages with the priests (12 went on the Camino de Santiago with me, and many have gone to the Holy Land, Fatima, etc.).

“So some enter religious formation, but many get married too, because we priests do not only give talks on theological and moral issues, and the vocation to the priesthood and consecrated life, but on marriage as well. In fact, often I’ve said to a room full of young adults, that this time next year I want at least six of you (three couples) to have entered the sacrament of marriage. I actively introduce young men to young women and encourage them to not just ‘date’ but to be thinking of marriage from the first date, even if it’s not spoken about openly until the third or fourth date. Once they are engaged, I tell them (during marriage prep) to have ‘as many children as fast as you can,’ because raising children is a ‘young person’s sport.’ In fact, marriage itself takes a lot of energy and flexibility, qualities that diminish with age, so I urge young adults to get married as soon as possible.

“Matchmaking, which is really just remote preparation for marriage, is one of the priest’s essential tasks, about which he should not be shy nor ungenerous in his efforts. The Church is built on parishes, and parishes are built on families, although of course single people and consecrated people all play our part too. But the vast majority of energy in any healthy parish is from married couples and their children. In facilitating healthy marriages, the priest is simply earning his bread and butter. Without it, his parish withers, and the faith is not nearly so effectively delivered.

“In today’s culture of isolation and hook-ups, with so many scarred from porn addictions and even sexual abuse, young people need their priests more than ever to be good fathers in this area. They need us to tell them that they can be happy as married people, that they have the ability, with God’s grace, to build a family with another person. Young men, especially, need priests to give them this manly confidence.

“One young man timidly asked me about a girl he liked, and I told him he could be bold and ask her out. Later, when they had been dating a few months, I again encouraged him to propose to her. He did so, and they are to be married in August. He later told me that without my encouragement, he never would have thought he could make that commitment. They are very happy together, and God willing, will stay happy together. Another young lady was frustrated that her boyfriend had never made it perfectly clear that he loved her, and she was ready to look elsewhere. She and I had lunch together downtown and talked about it, and now they are happily married. Her father and mother were essential, of course, to her vocation, but her priest was also essential.

“This parish has had an unusually large number of men enter religious life, which is one gauge of its fidelity to Christ. But another essential metric of fidelity and effectiveness is how many weddings, and how many of those make it past the seven-year marker. This year we have three couples from our young adults group getting married. God willing, they will remain faithful their whole lives, and raise children – saints – to the glory of God.”

The above is a Cal Catholic exclusive by Gibbons Cooney.