At 2 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2010, as the rocks tumbled around them, and “Los 33” realized that they had been trapped a half-mile below the Chilean desert, they began to assign duties. Just minutes before, they knew they were miners. But now in the dark, other gifts were being called into light. If they were going to survive this ordeal, they would have to trust each other’s invitations to see their talents in a new light. Some would chronicle, others would entertain, and still others were called to lead the others in prayer. In hope, they asked for spiritual leadership to strengthen their faith.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is observed as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Instituted by Pope Paul VI in 1963, and continued by successive pontiffs, this annual observance provides us with the opportunity to raise our awareness and prayers for vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life.
Pope Benedict reminds us, “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 and to the extension of His kingdom. … He invites them to leave behind their own narrow agenda and their notions of self-fulfillment in order to immerse themselves in … the will of God” (Message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 2011).
The Lord does not fail to call people to share in His mission and to serve the Church in the ordained ministry and in the consecrated life. The challenge is to hear the call and to respond to it. Many “voices” attract the men and women of today and stifle the divine invitation to follow Christ through the gift of one’s life. Prayer for vocations, particularly the prayer that those called will hear the still, quiet voice of the Lord and respond to the invitation by their self gift to Christ and His mission, is our responsibility.
The World Day of Prayer for Vocations has produced fruit in recent years. In February, the Vatican released a finding that the number of priests ordained increased from 1999 to 2009 — the most recent year available for the study. This may come as a shock to those of us in the U.S. and within our own diocese where parishes experience the reality of the priest shortage resulting in closed or reconfigured parishes. However, whereas the U.S. saw a 7% decline in ordinations to the priesthood, Africa saw a 38% increase and Asia experienced a 31% increase. It appears that God is answering our prayers for vocations, but what can we do to see that growth in our own country and Diocese?
Pope Benedict XVI suggests a solution. In his message for this year’s World Day of Prayer for Vocations, he reminds us, “It is essential that every local Church become more sensitive and attentive to the pastoral care of vocations. …” He issues an invitation to “propose vocations in the local Church.” It is the local Church that must have the courage to point out to others this challenging way of following Christ which is so rich and capable of engaging one’s whole life. Many priests and religious, me included, were encouraged to enter the seminary or religious life by a priest or sister who asked them if they had ever considered being a priest or religious. Their very question was an affirmation that they recognized gifts and talents that could be realized in religious life as a priest, brother, deacon or sister.
Can the local Church of Syracuse do likewise? You, the men and women in our parishes, can be the ones to propose the idea of religious vocations to others. You know the young people and their families best. You see the gifts and talents of parishioners that you know and with whom you interact. Look for the traits of a possible vocation. Now is the time for you to call on the gifts and talents of the young men who are near you to serve as priests or brothers and the young women to embrace the call to religious life. Do not be afraid to tap young people on the shoulder and ask them to consider a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life.
A vocation is a divine call rooted in God’s love that seeks its fulfillment in the person’s self gift in love to God and His mission. Each person according to his gifts “must steadfastly advance along the way of a living faith, which arouses hope and works through love” (Lumen Gentium, #41).
The experiences of “Los 33” reveal that a person’s gifts may be called forth due to particular circumstances and may be perceived in a new way. The responsibility to recognize and call forth the gifts of others must be rooted in prayer. We need discerning hearts, the fruit of prayer, in order to recognize a possible vocation in ourselves or others.
We invoke the Blessed Mother, who said “yes” to God’s call and gave herself unreservedly to Him, to guide our efforts to recognize and call forth the gifts of the young men and women in our parishes to consider a vocation to the priesthood and consecrated life.
On World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we pray also that the universal Church will be blessed by a renewed appreciation for priesthood and the consecrated life that results in men and women hearing the divine invitation and responding to it.