The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday because on this day the Church always listens to a passage from St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. It is also the annual occasion when the whole Church turns with confidence to the Good Shepherd who promised “I will give you shepherds after my heart” (Jer 3:15), and begs him to call from among his good sheep many men to serve Him and His flock as priests.
The theme for Sunday’s 48th World Day of Prayer for Vocations is “Proposing Vocations in the Local Church.” In his message to mark the occasion, Pope Benedict emphasized, “The ability to foster vocations is a hallmark of the vitality of a local Church.” To be spiritually alive, dioceses — and the parishes and families that comprise them — should be generating vocations just as good trees bear good fruit. When they cease to produce vocations, the Holy Father implies, the challenging words of conversion that Jesus said to the Church of Sardis would seem to apply anew: “I know your works. You have the reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Awake and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (Rev 3:1-2).
The Pope, as he looks at the situation of the worldwide Church, has noted the obvious: some local Churches have great vitality, seen in an abundance of vocations, and others are barely alive. The disparity is not merely a situation of what might be called regional openness or hostility toward vocations: in certain vocationally fertile regions like in Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia and Nigeria, there are also dioceses that are vocationally sterile; likewise in countries that are struggling to produce priestly vocations, like the United States, there remain dioceses that are yielding a rich vocational harvest and even some individual parishes that are yielding more seminarians than whole nearby dioceses do.
Insofar as the parishes of our diocese, objectively, are struggling to foster priestly vocations — we presently have six seminarians from the 91 parishes — and insofar as priestly projections indicate there will be fewer than 60 active diocesan priests in 2020, the Holy Father’s words on vocational promotion in the local Church ought to be particularly pertinent and timely for us.
In his message, Pope Benedict seemed to be synthesizing a list of five “best practices” culled both from the Gospel as well as from the recent experience of those local Churches that have shown remarkable vitality in fostering vocations.
The first practice is prayer. Pope Benedict implied that Jesus always knew that there would be a need for vocations, that the harvest would “plentiful but the laborers few.” That’s why the Good Shepherd called his followers to “pray to the Harvest Master to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mk 9:36-38). Prayer was Jesus’ first action with regard to vocations. Before calling his first followers, Pope Benedict said, “Jesus spent the night alone in prayer, listening to the will of the Father. … It is Jesus’ intimate conversation with the Father that results in the calling of his disciples.” Pope Benedict draws an important conclusion from Jesus’ words and example: “Vocations to the ministerial priesthood and to the consecrated life are first and foremost the fruit of constant contact with the living God and insistent prayer lifted up to the ‘Lord of the harvest,’ whether in parish communities, in Christian families or in groups specifically devoted to prayer for vocations.” The vitality of a Catholic family, parish and diocese will be manifested, Pope Benedict indicated, by the frequency and intensity with which they pray to the Harvest Master.
The second practice is to show young people the example of total commitment to Christ with a willingness to sacrifice for him in ordinary familial, parochial and diocesan life. Jesus’ first disciples were able to leave their boats and tax-collecting tables because they valued Jesus more than they loved a big catch and money. They were longing for the Messiah, thought they recognized him in Jesus, and therefore were able to leave immediately to go with the one who personally called them with the words, “Follow me!” Pope Benedict commented, “It is a challenging and uplifting invitation that Jesus addresses to those to whom he says: ‘Follow me!’ He invites them to become his friends, to listen attentively to his word and to live with him. He teaches them complete commitment to God … in accordance with the law of the Gospel: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ He invites them to leave behind their own narrow agenda and their notions of self-fulfillment in order to immerse themselves in another will, the will of God, and to be guided by it. He gives them an experience of fraternity, one born of that total openness to God that becomes the hallmark of the community of Jesus.” Since the call of Christ always involves the paradox of losing one’s life to save it, vocational promotion must facilitate “learning to keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, growing close to him, listening to his word and encountering him in the sacraments; it means learning to conform our will to his.” The vitality of a Christian family, parish and diocese will feature all of these markers.
Pope Benedict’s third point is that there really is never a “vocations” or “calling” crisis in the Church, but rather a crisis in hearing that vocation and responding to it. “The Lord does not fail to call people at every stage of life to share in his mission and to serve the Church in the ordained ministry and in the consecrated life,” he stressed. The problem is that in some areas and lives the voice of the Lord can get “drowned out by ‘other voices,’ and his invitation to follow him by the gift of one’s own life may seem too difficult.” Because of this two-fold challenge, “every Christian community, every member of the Church, needs consciously … to encourage and support those who show clear signs of a call to priestly life and religious consecration, and to enable hem to feel the warmth of the whole community as they respond ‘yes’ to God and the Church.” In practical terms, this means helping the young “to grow into a genuine and affectionate friendship with the Lord, cultivated through personal and liturgical prayer; to grow in familiarity with the sacred Scriptures and thus to listen attentively and fruitfully to the word of God; to understand that entering into God’s will does not crush or destroy a person, but instead leads to the discovery of the deepest truth about ourselves; and finally to be generous and fraternal in relationships with others, since it is only in being open to the love of God that we discover true joy and the fulfillment of our aspirations.” To have authentic Christian vitality, a local Church must be inspiring and training people to hear and respond to the Word of God with courage, generosity and gratitude.
Fourth, Pope Benedict called attention to the crucial role bishops have in fostering vocations and urged them to “choose carefully” their vocation directors, ensuring they select those who are effective in three things: inspiring vocations, caring pastorally for those with the seeds of vocations, and fostering the personal, and ecclesial prayer that sustains vocations work and guarantees its effectiveness. Benedict is highlighting what most who have studied vocations numbers readily admit: there’s normally a correspondence between the number of priestly vocations in a local church and the type of sacrifice a diocese makes with regard to vocations promoters; those dioceses teeming with vocations normally began by assigning one or more of its most capable priests to vocations work full-time. Those in vocationally vibrant dioceses often look to the vocation director as the single most important appointment a bishop makes.
Finally, the Pope noted the important role of priests, families, catechists and leaders of parish groups, reminding them that “every moment in the life of the Church community – catechesis, formation meetings, liturgical prayer, pilgrimages – can be a precious opportunity for awakening in the People of God, and in particular in children and young people, a sense of belonging to the Church and of responsibility for answering the call to priesthood and to religious life by a free and informed decision.” Vocations promotion is meant to occur in “every moment in the life of the Church,” and whether it does is another sign of the diocese’s or parish’s vitality.
As we mark the World Day of Prayer for Vocations and turn anew to the Harvest Master, let us pray not only that he grant us an abundance of priestly vocations. Let us also ask him to send his Holy Spirit to make all our Catholic families and parishes truly come alive through a total commitment to the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for us and calls each of us to lay down our lives for Him and for each other.
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