As I depart, I want to share some things I have learned about vocations these last years. While mostly random thoughts, I hope that these can help us continue to build a culture of vocations.
1. The New Evangelization is absolutely necessary. This New Evangelization is not a program, rather a focus on the proclamation of Jesus Christ, to re-propose to people who may have some familiarity to Him, but do not let that knowledge deepen within them. It is not about a re-invigoration of parishes or promotion of more programs. We live in a culture that is further disconnected from God and the faith. The New Evangelization sees this as a new opportunity to proclaim Christ. It is proclaiming Christ to a world that has a ‘certain forgetfulness of God’, as Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us several times. When we can share the love of Christ, tell of His mercy and forgiveness, and help others begin to live a moral life, discernment inevitably follows. True, though, that the New Evangelization will lead to vibrant parishes, but only because the faith has taken flame in the hearts of parishioners!
2. Vocations are everyone’s business. It is not just the Director of Vocations, or the Bishop, or the priest personnel board, or even only the parish pastors who are responsible for promoting vocations. It belongs to everyone, ordained, vowed, and lay men and women of all ages. The flame of faith in the hearts of the faithful lead to a desire that others be on fire with the love of God. They encourage others to respond to the promptings of the Spirit to answer a vocation, and all can personally invite a young man or woman to consider a vocation.
3. Personal Invitation is vital. We can help others hear the voice of Christ by inviting them to consider a vocation. To highlight the point of personal invitation, over 75% of seminarians state that they were encouraged and invited to discern a vocation by a priest, but only about 33% of priests are inviting young men – imagine if we could get at least another third of priests to invite! Further, imagine a parish or diocese in which a majority of the members are listening to the promptings of the Spirit and invite others to follow the Lord.
4. Fear is an obstacle to the spiritual life and to the growth of vocations. Some are afraid to invite others to consider a vocation because of a fear of rejection. Some are afraid to give their lives to God, fearing it will lead to unhappiness or dissatisfaction. Jesus assures us time and again, though, “Be not afraid!” We must also remember that perfect love casts out fear (1John 4:18). We need to grow in more perfect love – something we do when we pray.
5. Prayer, even the most humble, is more powerful than any vocations program. If we are not praying, how can we expect other to pray. Recognition of a vocation is born from the silence of prayer. As one grows in relation with the Holy Trinity, one also is more able to respond to the promptings of the Spirit.
6. When we pray, we must be specific. While it sounds rather bold, it is necessary and theologically sound. Like personal goals, or even a programed GPS, when we are specific in our prayers, we might also see what we need to do to help God grant those prayers or at least be moving in the right direction. Generic prayer and sacrifice for vocations are good, but to offer specific prayers (a rosary a day or an weekly hour of adoration, for example) or specific sacrifices (like fasting from meat on Fridays) are powerful. Pray for a specific number of seminarians or religious, parishioners, pray for those discerning to come from “our parish”. Families, pray for that a son or daughter may be open to discerning! Be specific.
7. We must present vocations out of a great opportunity versus crisis. In our great Diocese of New Ulm, like many throughout the world, it is easy to focus on the need we have for priests. Some, when they do speak on vocations and the need for priests, do so from a very pessimistic perspective. Giving the impression all is lost, and that the Church as we now have it is a sinking ship, leads to despair and many who may be called to walk away in despair. While we cannot be Pollyannish – ignoring the difficulty of our current situation – we must realize that God is still God, and He continues to call men to the priesthood, and men and women to the religious life. We need to encourage them instead of discouraging. Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church, so it is safe to remain in the “barque of Peter”, in fact – it is the safest place to be.
8. There is a vocations crisis, but one that is bigger than just priests. We see the deterioration of family life in divorce, the attempts to redefine family in which the nuptial meaning of procreation is questioned due to the rampant culture of death. In such a climate, making a lifelong, permanent choice is difficult, if not impossible for many. To confront this, a concerted focus needs to be made in highlight the sacrament of matrimony and those who have embraced this vocation. We can highlight those couples lovingly commit themselves to each other freely, and lovingly embrace children as an extension of their love. The majority of priesthood and religious vocations will continue to come from those (in fact, in the Diocese of New Ulm, all of our current seminarians hail from intact families, and a the large majority of priests have intact, biological families). If our youth cannot identify even one strong witness of a married couple in their lives, how can our young discern a loving vocation, and commit themselves to live such a vocation freely and permanently? This is not to say that those from other types of homes cannot hear a vocation, or do not have a vocation, but it certainly makes responding to one more difficult as I can personally testify.
9. Sadly, certain scandals have damaged the personal witness of the vast majority of good and holy priests, adding to the fuel of those who claim vocations are in crisis. As the Church roots out the perpetrators, brings healing to the victims, and reestablishes trust with parishioners and others, we need to be even more diligent in seeking holiness ourselves.
10. Personal witness is the best vocations promotion. St. John Paul II drew hundreds of thousands to World Youth Days. When he died, many expressed concern that World Youth Days would cease to draw youth. While his personality was more reserved and introspective, Pope Emeritus Benedict drew massive crowds as well. The youth expressed that he was authentic. Pope Francis draws crowds with his warmth and wit. But all three drew people for the same reason – they love Jesus Christ with their whole being, and were leading people to Him, not to themselves (as a pop star might). If we want to draw people to Christ, we must be authentic, not pretending to be something we are not. We must avail ourselves of the grace of the Sacraments, especially Reconciliation and the Eucharist. We must be in love with Christ, and let that love permeate all that we do and say. In the end, we must all become saints!