November 8, 2007
Catholicism is the largest Christian faith worldwide and accounts for 22% of the U.S. population. Last year, the Catholic population of the United States rose about 1.3 million to 69,135,254. The Church continues to grow in fidelity to the Lord’s mandate to share the gospel and make disciples of all peoples (cf Mt 28:16-20).
The increase in Catholic faithful presents a challenge to priests who have given their life to serve God’s people. In 1965, there were 994 new priests ordained in the United States. This year, there were 456 priests ordained. In 1965, there were 8,325 graduate-level seminarians; this year, 3,274. The bare statistics indicate that fewer priests are being asked to do more and more. However, there have been other changes that have accompanied the decrease in the number of priests.
The Second Vatican Council restored the diaconate as a permanent ministry in the Church. Today many dedicated married and celibate men ordained as deacons now bring new zeal and enthusiasm to parish and diocesan life. Furthermore, laypeople are taking a much more active role in the pastoral work of the Church. Both changes have contributed to the vitality of Catholicism in this country.
With all the changes in the way that the Church accomplishes Her divine mission, priests remain essential. Christ chose to gift the Church with the priesthood as the means to continue his presence and action among us. He took great care in preparing the very first priests of the Church.
When Jesus began his public ministry, he already signaled the need he had for intimate collaborators in the work of redemption. When he met Peter and Andrew, and James and John along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he conquered them with his look of love and spoke to them of his intention: “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men!” (Mk 1:17; cf. Mt 4:19). These were the ones he made his first priests at the Last Supper.
Jesus was able to change the direction of these men’s lives because they heard his voice and listened when he called them. Herein lies both the mystery of vocation and the way for all of us to cooperate in the work of vocations. For someone to respond to the call of God, the individual first needs to be “educated” to listen to the voice of God. This is what Eli did, when he helped the young Samuel to understand what God was asking of him (cf 1 Sam 3:9). There are a few ways that each of us can contribute to this education of young people to hear the call of God to the special vocation of the priesthood.
First, we need to create an atmosphere where faithful listening to God’s voice can take place. This happens when each of us lives in such a way that our young people can see that God is real, that God matters. A community that is materialistic and not spiritual, this worldly and not otherworldly, will yield a poor harvest of vocations. But a community that lives the gospel of Jesus who draws us from the prison of our own self into the adventure of a divine love will see vocations multiply like the loaves and fishes. Where the Church is holy, where we are holy, vocations flourish.
Secondly, according to the explicit command of the Lord, we must implore the gift of vocations. We are to pray untiringly and together. After preaching and healing in the towns and villages of the Galilee, Jesus saw the crowds that followed him. He looked with compassion on those who were hungering for physical and spiritual healing. “Then he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Mt 9:38). The invitation is in the plural: it is to all of us to pray earnestly. Vocations are gifts that only God can give. He gives them readily to communities that long to have them and sincerely pray for them.
Third, at the center of every Christian community is the Eucharist, the source and summit of the life of the Church. “Eucharistic love” is the source and motivation for the vocational activity of the whole Church. Vocations to the priesthood flourish wherever Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is a treasure, a daily bread, a gift to be received and shared with others. Mass every day and Eucharistic adoration foster vocations more than we can imagine.
Fourth, in a recent survey of men scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood, 78% of them said that a priest invited them to consider the priesthood. In a poll of young adult Catholics, only 15% indicated that they had been encouraged to think about a vocation to the religious life or priesthood. All of us, and most especially priests, must be unafraid to invite young people to think of the priesthood.
There is one last way to foster vocations beyond the four already mentioned. It is a simple way, an easy way. Respect, honor and love your priests. At a time when it is all too easy for the media to tear down the great work that the priests are doing for the common good, we need to build up our priests. They work hard and long and faithfully. Tell them you appreciate them. Pass on stories of their goodness to others. Create the climate where priesthood is valued and priests are loved. A positive appreciation of priests will encourage the young to follow Jesus who calls them.
Since God has established the Church as the sign and sacrament of salvation (cf
Lumen Gentium, l), the Good Shepherd never abandons the Church. He constantly calls certain individuals to continue his work as priests. He also expects us to do our part in helping those whom He calls to hear his voice. Creating a climate for vocations is the work of the whole Church.