TIGARD — Brett Brannen has a truck, a dog and he likes to hunt. He also loves being a Catholic priest.
"Bring people to Jesus and get out of the way," the plain-spoken Georgian told a crowd of 120 Northwest Catholics gathered at a conference on vocations. The sentence is one of his priestly dictums.
Father Brannen, who has a flair for showing what's holy about everyday life, is the author of To Save a Thousand Souls, a book being distributed in many parts of the country to young men considering priesthood.
Last month's conference was hosted by the Serra Club of Portland, which encourages vocations and gives support to local clergy and religious. Serra members came to the conference from clubs in Salem, Bend and points in Washington.
Father Brannen told Serra Club members that their personal holiness would create more holiness and could make a difference in what a young person chooses in life.
Father Brannen, former vocations director for the Diocese of Savannah, said the church should develop clergy and religious by looking to God and working, but not fretting.
"God does not need us to do anything," he said. "He could fill the church with saintly priests at the snap of his fingers. But God allows us to be part of his work not because he needs us, but because he loves us."
Father Brannen is optimistic, despite statistics. For every 100 U.S. priests who die or retire, the church ordains 30. There are 17,000 parishes in the U.S.; more than 3,000 have no resident priest.
"Statistics can be paralyzing," Father Brannen says. "They can cause stinkin' thinkin'. But we are people of hope."
The church has been here before, the priest reminded the crowd. After the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, seminary enrollment dwindled and mavens of society foresaw the demise of Catholicism. But the church came back improved and stronger both times.
Father Brannen says the same will happen in the decades to come, following social revolutions of the 1960s and '70s and the past decade's revelations of priest sexual abuse.
"The church has been painfully pruned," he said. "Now she is beginning to bloom."
The quality of men coming to priesthood is excellent, Father Brannen reports, saying that one job of vocations directors is to steer some men away from seminary. "We don't need any more lazies or crazies in the priesthood," the priest said said. "We need men who love the Lord, who will go where they're sent and do what is asked of them."
The priesthood, he reminded the Serra Club members, is not an end in itself.
"The end is Jesus," he said, "and it's Jesus who saves souls."
Lay people came to the conference from the region's 14 different Serra clubs to enhance their zeal and skill for the work.
Families are where vocations start, says Paul Harris of the Portland Serra Club. But few families today are encouraging the choice.
"We've outsourced the asking, to the parish religious education directors or teachers," Harris said.
"Our culture is becoming more secularized. We need to re-focus," said Morie Ratuiste, a Serra Club member from Pasco, Wash. His son Kyle is a seminarian for the Diocese of Spokane.
Father John Henderson, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Portland and Serra chaplain, discussed vocations in a eucharistic context, where Christ's service and sacrifice are made real.
"The Eucharist gives me purpose to stand up for the dignity of every human being," Father Henderson told the group. "The Eucharist is connected with my need to serve and carry out the social mission of the church."
Father Henderson said that financial comfort seems to "choke out" our openness to vocations of service.
"But all we worked for, all we saved, count to the Lord our Savior for, well, nothing," he said.
Franciscan Sister Theresa Lamkin, who works with low-income and homeless people in Old Town, spoke about her ministry and her calling.
Sister Theresa has traveled the world experiencing poverty and social justice first hand. As a young woman, she heard Mother Teresa speak and saw the work of the Missionaries of Charity. She learned that the gospel calls humans not only to give food and clothes, but love and care. When someone is doing that gospel work, witnessing it can be a powerful vocational pull, Sister Theresa said.
Jesuit Father Paul Grubb, who teaches freshman religion at Jesuit High School, discussed the need to show young people what the church teaches, but be aware of modern sensibilities.
"You start saying 'Jesus this' and 'Jesus that' in some crowds, it's like you just stunk up the room," Father Grubb said. "You need to be careful." Better simply to live out one's faith in full view, he said.
"The best thing you can do to bring the next generation to the table is to live a life that radiates the joy you find in your religion," the priest said.
"Nothing could be greater than being a priest," said Father Mike Biewend, pastor of The Madeleine Parish in Portland and a priest for 33 years. "I can't think of any greater way to help people. It's to share their greatest struggles and joys."
Father Raul Marquez, administrator of St. Peter Parish in Southeast Portland says he invites young people all the time to consider vocations. He urges parents to do the same.
Mary Jo Tully, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland and a seminary professor, said Catholics can develop their faith communities to foster vocations.
"I wonder if we worked on making our parishes the kind of community young men would like to lead if that would make a difference," Tully said.
Father Peter Siamoo, a missionary from Tanzania, recalled playing priest as a child, wearing his mother's new Christmas gown as a vestment, with the hem dragging around the yard in chicken droppings.
The deep family connections in his region help open young men to the calling, said Father Siamoo. His Diocese of Moshi has only 54 parishes but 60 seminarians.
"Lots of thing can make us happy," he said. "But to live a fulfilled life, you need to follow where God has called you."
Holy Names Sister Eileen Brown, longtime educator and chancellor of the Diocese of Fairbanks, says she learned many things from her married siblings that have made her a better woman religious. Her work with Alaska natives showed her that there, the desire for family life and some matriarchal structures make Catholic priesthood a difficult notion. But she has hope.
Father John Brennan, a theologian who teaches at St. John Seminary in Camarillo, Calif., discussed Mary as a paradigm for vocations. Mary, he said, consented to be led by God, but could have refused. Father Brennan showed a slide of a Renaissance painting of the annunciation. God watches Mary with anxious expectancy as the angel speaks to her.
"Ultimately this is the Christian vocation: Agree to give birth to Christ in your life," the priest said.