May and June are months associated often with ordinations and the celebration of priests’ anniversaries. As I started to write this week’s article for the Catholic Sun, I realized that tomorrow [May 12] is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations celebrated annually on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday after Easter. I thought about Malachi Clark’s ordination to the transitional diaconate, which we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, and Deacon Nathan Brooks’ upcoming ordination to the priesthood on June 1. I recalled the Admission to Candidacy for the clerical state celebrated on May 6. On that occasion, seminarians Brendan Foley, Dennis Walker, and John Leo Oduor declared their intention to proceed toward ordination and the final two years of their formation. Finally, I thought about the many priests who are celebrating their anniversaries of ordination — my own included — during the next few weeks.
By virtue of our baptism, we share a common vocation: the call to holiness. In my pastoral letter at the conclusion of the Year of Faith I noted, “All of us, bishops, priests and deacons, consecrated persons and lay faithful, are called to holiness through the perfection of charity, the love of God and neighbor. When we are faithful to the grace of our Baptism, we build up the Body of Christ. Each member of the Church shares this responsibility and sacred duty” (Faith, A Gift Received – A Treasure to be Shared, November 24, 2013).
While appreciating all vocations, the World Day of Prayer for Vocations publicly fulfills the Lord’s instruction to “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38). On Good Shepherd Sunday the Church concentrates its attention on vocations to the ordained ministries (priesthood and diaconate); to religious life in all its forms (male and female), contemplative and apostolic; to societies of apostolic life; to secular institutes in their diversity of services and membership; and to the missionary life. This year marks the 56th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
Here in our diocese, we experience a declining number of priests and religious. People of my vintage recall when Catholic schools and hospitals were almost exclusively staffed by women religious. Parishes had more than one priest — a pastor and one, two, and occasionally more assistants. The situation is far different today and is experienced most notably when parishes are linked, merged, and in some cases worship sites closed. I am confident, however, that God is calling men and women to the ordained ministry and consecrated life. Pope Francis reminds us, “There needs to be a renewed commitment on the part of the whole Church — priests, religious, pastoral workers, and educators — to provide young people in particular with opportunities for listening and discernment. There is a need for a youth ministry and a vocational promotion that can open the way to discovering God’s plan, above all through prayer, meditation on God’s word, Eucharistic adoration and spiritual accompaniment” (Message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, January 31, 2019).
I once heard a vocation described as an answer of love to a call of love. Pope Francis echoed this same thought when he told seminarians and novices, “Becoming a priest or a man or woman religious is not primarily our own decision . . . Rather it is the response to a call and to a call of love” (Address to Seminarians and Novices, July 6, 2013). Is not this what we see in the parable of the Good Shepherd? The shepherd “knows” his sheep. This is not a casual recognition or a superficial acquaintance. He knows each sheep personally. In Sacred Scripture, knowledge is often akin to love. The Good Shepherd loves His sheep and calls each one by name. Every vocation begins with God’s initiative. He takes the first step.
The sheep “heard” the shepherd’s voice and followed him. On the day devoted to prayer for vocations, it is important to ask the Lord to open the ears and hearts of men and women to hear the Lord’s voice and to accept the invitation to walk with Him.
When you read this article, Good Shepherd Sunday and the World Day of Prayer for Vocations will have passed. However, our responsibility to pray for vocations is not reserved to one day. No, we need to pray frequently that the Lord will send laborers into His vineyard. Please join me in praying for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. If we want more priests, sisters, and brothers, we need to ask. Pray that the universal Church and our diocese will be blessed with generous men and women who accept the invitation to follow the Lord as a priest or consecrated religious.
Consider also inviting active young adults and teens to consider a vocation to the priesthood and consecrated life. Many priests, myself included, thought seriously about priesthood because someone asked us to do so. I imagine many religious have had a similar experience. Consider helping our young people discern God’s plan for them by putting forth the question. A simple, sincere comment should not be underestimated.
God calls each person personally to a particular vocation. How often we ask a young person, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Let me suggest that we phrase the question differently and ask them, “What does God want you to be?” It is a simple change but it acknowledges that God should be a part of the conversation when a person is discerning a vocation.
I join Pope Francis in telling young men and women, “There can be no greater joy than to risk one’s life for the Lord! . . . Do not be deaf to the Lord’s call. . . . Do not yield to fear, which paralyzes us before the great heights to which the Lord points us. Always remember that to those who leave their nets and boat behind, and follow him, the Lord promises the joy of a new life that can fill our hearts and enliven our journey” (Message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 2019).
“God our Father, we thank you for calling men and women to serve in your Son’s Kingdom as priests, deacons, religious, and consecrated persons. Send your Holy Spirit to help us respond generously and courageously to your call. May our community of faith support vocations of sacrificial love in our youth. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen” (USCCB Prayer for Vocations).
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.