Last week, Father Joseph O’Connor and the Diocese of Syracuse hosted the Diocesan Vocation Directors from throughout New York State. During their meeting they visited the Shrine of Blessed Mother Marianne Cope, where I celebrated Mass for them. Following is my homily on that occasion.
I have been thinking about our gathering and this celebration of the Eucharist for the past few days. Certainly it came to mind on Sunday when I traveled to Baltimore for a Board of Trustees Meeting at St. Mary’s Seminary. I thought of it again as I walked the halls of seminary and saw some of the young men who are discerning their vocation to the priesthood at St. Mary’s. Many of them, and other men at numerous seminaries, have been assisted on their journey by a vocation director, perhaps by one of you. I thought of our gathering also when I reflected on the Easter season and most especially when I considered the Scripture readings from the past couple of days.
The Church does not allow us to celebrate the Resurrection on one day only. Rather, it prolongs the feast for 50 days. It lets us linger, so to speak, on this wonderful, beautiful mystery of Christ’s triumph over death and all its consequences … to hold it in our hearts … to ponder it and yes, to savor and to cherish it. We listen to the Scriptures that tell us about the Risen Lord, about the first evangelizers who proclaimed His Resurrection and about the Apostles, particularly Peter and Paul, and their work during the beginning days of the Church. As we rejoice in this Good News we commit ourselves with renewed enthusiasm to its proclamation.
A special task is assigned to you, my dear brothers and sisters. You awaken minds and hearts to possibilities, nurture the divine seed of a vocation, support the initial stirrings of grace and companion those who are searching for God’s will.
Today’s first reading makes it clear that proclaiming the Gospel is not without its difficulties. Paul was stoned and left for dead! Luckily for the people in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch this was not the case, but Paul reminds them, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). I am not suggesting that your particular ministry leads to stoning but I imagine that each of you can identify with the hardships that accompany your ministry … the challenges and disappointments that you encounter. This idea of undergoing hardships prompts me to offer the following.
“My Father is the vine grower” (Jn 15:1). We heard those words in Sunday’s Gospel. They reminded me that a vocation is the gift of the love of God. The source of the divine call is found in the initiative of the infinite love of God, the vine grower. It is He who plants the seeds of inquiry and interest, seeds of searching and desire in the hearts and minds of the young men that come to you looking for information, for answers and for guidance. Borrowing a phrase from philosophy, God is the “prime mover” in the mystery of a vocation. But you play an important part in helping a young man discern this call. You become, to a certain extent, part of the dialogue between a young man and God. In this capacity, however, you must remain humble. You are the instruments that further true discernment but the call comes from God.
To fulfill your ministry you need to stay connected to the vine, Christ, in order to bear fruit. “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” (Jn 15:4) You have a responsibility, as I do, to maintain and to strengthen, with the help of grace, your union with Christ. Daily celebration of the Eucharist, the divine office, spiritual reading, personal prayer should be part of your daily schedule. You cannot give what you do not have. You cannot assist others in their life journey, in their discernment of God’s will unless you can discern His presence and will in your own lives. And you cannot do this if you are not prayerful men and women, bearing fruit because you remain attached to the vine.
As we proceed through the Acts of the Apostles, it becomes quite clear that the early Christians did not form an idyllic community. Even in those beginning days there were disagreements, personality clashes and divisions. Although one commentary on the Council of Jerusalem called it a “Holy Conversation,” I suspect that it was also a heated conversation given the personalities and issues involved. That leads me to note how important it is for you to love the Church in all its goodness, truth and beauty but also with all its imperfections. It occurs to me that we love our family and our friends even though both family and friends are not perfect. We embrace them as they are while not excusing their shortcomings and poor choices. And so we embrace and love the Church as she is — holy and yet in need of continual conversion. The young often see things only in black or white. You, who are wiser, recognize the shades of gray. Love the Church as she is and earnestly reform yourselves so that the Church may always advance toward its final glory. If you love the Church in this manner, you can help others to do so also.
Your work is demanding on your time and energy. But, my brothers, I hope you remain engaged actively in the life of a parish priest. I know you cannot do everything. Your work often calls you away from a parish but keep in mind that if you are to speak credibly about the priesthood to men discerning priesthood, you need first-hand knowledge and experience of parish life. Celebrating the liturgy in a parish, preaching, sacramental preparation, conferring the sacraments, visiting the sick, reaching out to the material and spiritual needs of others – all of this is part of priestly ministry. It seems to me that a certain amount of time spent in these areas or at least in some of them will help you to talk about and witness to the priesthood with more authenticity.
I heard once that if one is going to invest in the stock market one has to be prepared for the long haul. If one is too concerned about the daily ups and downs of the market, he or she is probably not fitted to invest seriously in it. The desired results of investments are not immediate but in the future. This is similar to vocation work. The desired results are not immediate. Often in the short term men you thought would go to the seminary do not go, some who go leave, and some years the picking is pretty slim both for those entering and those being ordained. Often you do not see the fruit of your labors immediately. At times it may appear that you are not accomplishing much. You may be disappointed and even discouraged. But remember, God is the prime mover. You are His instrument. Remain connected to Him and experience the Good News of today’s Gospel, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you …. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. I am going away and I will come back to you” (Jn 14:27).
Paradoxically, Jesus’ going away allows Him to return through the gift of the Holy Spirit who teaches us all we need to know. God plants the seed of a vocation in a man’s heart and he asks you to nurture it in a variety of ways — by your example, by your words, by your support and encouragement and by asking the difficult and challenging questions. And as you well know, in this ministry you experience some hardships along the way but you also experience many joys as you companion the young men who come to you. May God bless you and your efforts to assist young men in the discernment of their vocation. Know of my prayerful support as you continue in this important ministry.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.