The Epiphany and Priestly Vocations, Epiphany of the Lord, January 7, 2001

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
Solemnity of the Epiphany
January 7, 2001
Catholic Vocations Week

Three wise men came from such a distance to adore Christ, to give them their homage much more than gold, frankincense and myrrh. They had searched for the star, searched for the truth, and had found that the truth had a name, Jesus. Everything changed as a result. They had found that treasure, that precious pearl, and had given up what they had to give Jesus the best they had.

We have great reason to rejoice this weekend at Espirito Santo, because earlier today two young men gave the Lord the best they had, dying to themselves on the floor of Holy Trinity Church so that Christ might rise again within them. One of the two is our own Kevin Cook, who will be preaching his first homily tomorrow. Like the wise men, they searched for the truth, they followed the star wherever it led them in their lives, and it led them into the seminary and now into ordained life. They promised this morning to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, to pray every day for the needs of the Church, and to be obedient unto death, just like Christ. And it is a great joy for this Church of Espirito Santo to have been associated with Kevin since the summer, to share in his joy.

This week is the week for vocations. All of us have a vocation to follow the Lord wherever he goes. Most of us he leads to the altar holding the hand of the one with whom he wants us to build up the kingdom of heaven. Some he calls to follow him behind the altar as priests and deacons. Others into religious life. But this is the week we focus on hearing God’s call.

Priestly vocations, as Bishop O’Malley wrote in his beautiful recent pastoral letter to the faithful of the diocese, are everyone’s business. We all know too well that without the Priesthood there is no Eucharist; without the Eucharist the Church is crippled. For this reason, Priestly Vocations are everyone’s business. If you are a Catholic, you have a huge stake in the priesthood and vocations. Christ has given us, the Church, the gift of the priesthood to perpetuate the Eucharist, to preach the Gospel, and to forgive sins.

I’d like to continue by reading from Bishop O’Malley’s pastoral letter:

Because these things are so important to us, we must be attentive to what is happening in our world. Our priests are growing older, and fewer men are coming forth from the community to replace them. It has been a joy for us that in the last eight years we have ordained 30 new priests for the Diocese of Fall River. However, during this same time period, we have lost almost 50 priests from active ministry through retirement, illness, and death.

What is the problem? Is God calling fewer people? I think not. God is still calling; but many are not heeding the call, like the rich young man in the Gospel whom Jesus invited to discipleship but who declined because he was very rich and very attached to his wealth. The Gospel says that Christ looked on the man with love when He called him, but the story goes on to say that the man went away sad, “because his possessions were many.”

When a vocation goes unanswered it is not only a sadness for the one who declines God’s call, but also a sadness for the entire Catholic community which has just lost another priest. When I hear this Gospel about the rich young man, I wish I could have been there to say to him, “Not so fast, give God a chance, trust Him, don’t go away sad – embrace your vocation and find true happiness.” Unable to reach the rich young man of the Gospel, I want to try to reach out to today’s “rich young man” whom Christ is calling to be a priest; and I want to appeal to my fellow Catholics to join me in this campaign to identify the young people God is calling.

God in His loving Providence gives to the Church all the gifts She needs. The crisis is not a lack of vocations, but rather a lack of responses. Why is there a lack of responses? Perhaps because so many Catholics are unaware of what priesthood is all about: the wonder and awe of making Christ present in our midst. A priest lends his voice to Christ who says at each Mass: “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” It is the priest who shares so intimately in Jesus’ ministry of Reconciliation. What a joy to be able to announce the good news to a suffering person: “Through this Holy Anointing, may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

As Catholics, we need to promote vocations in the Church. It is the responsibility of the entire community to pray for vocations and to invite our young people to consider the possibility that God might be calling them to a vocation as a priest or religious. Our ideal goal must be to instill in our young Catholics such a love and appreciation for the sacraments and the priesthood that they will not only consider a vocation themselves, but also encourage their peers to be open to such an option, because too many vocations have fallen victim to peer pressure. Parents, priests, and catechists must form youth leaders who can help encourage vocations in our parishes, our schools, and our youth organizations.

Nationwide, the number of Catholics continues to increase and now stands at over 61 million. This represents a growth of 17 million Catholics since 1965. While the number of Catholics has increased, the number of priests has dropped from 58,000 to 47,000 and the number of seminarians has shrunk from 8,000 to 3,000. Of the over 19,000 parishes in our country more than 2,000 are without a resident priest. This means that 10 percent of the U.S. parishes have no resident priest. The reality of the present shortage of priests, coupled with the aging of our clergy, underscores the importance of promoting vocations. The vocations are there in the hearts of our young Catholics, vocations waiting to be nurtured and cultivated by our prayers and encouragement.

Outreach to the Young

We have many young people today who lead good and generous lives, but are not involved enough in the life of the Church or familiar enough with the teaching of the Gospel to be able to identify a call or to respond. This reality confronts us with one of the greatest challenges of the Church today: how to be more present to young Catholics and to involve them in the life of the Community. The overwhelming response to World Youth Day this summer indicates that many young people are experiencing a hunger for God and are turning to the Church for answers. The Holy Father is teaching us that we must love young people and invite them to be a part of our spiritual family. Sometimes Church leaders feel put off by modern culture or by a fear of being rejected by young Catholics. We need to reflect on the example of our Holy Father. In Rome this past August over two million young Catholics gathered around the Holy Father at Tor Vergata. There they renewed their baptismal promises, witnessed to their faith and participated in the Eucharist with Pope John Paul II. It was the largest gathering of youth in the history of Europe (which is a long history). No political leader, rock star, super model, athlete, scientist or philosopher could accomplish such a thing. Two million youth translates into one out of every 500 Catholics in the world. As the Holy Father said at the opening celebration, those young people came to Rome seeking Christ in the city hallowed by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul and generations of martyrs. The Holy Father’s love for the young and his ministry to them should encourage all of us in the Church to look for ways to allow our young Catholics to find their place in Christ’s Church.

Challenge of Discernment

The call can come at different moments in life. Some people feel a vocation early on and persevere with the idea through high school. Today, more and more young men are discerning a vocation after college, or when they are already finished their professional training and are working. The independence and status that have been acquired can make it very difficult for some young men to answer the call, like the rich young man in the Gospels who turns his back on a vocation because, “his possessions were many.” We urge young men who feel an inclination to the priesthood to enter into a discernment process to test their call. The process of discernment begins with a person working with a spiritual director in a gradual decision-making process. The decision, however, is not solely that of the individual. The Church must validate the call. For priests, the authenticity of the vocation is confirmed only when the man is accepted by the Bishop for priestly ordination. This takes place at the end of one’s seminary formation and with the endorsement of the faculty. For religious, it is only when the religious congregation accepts the final vows of the candidate. One of the reasons the period of seminary training is so long is to allow the discernment process to go on. We know that a candidate may not be too certain about a call. The seminary experience allows a man time to reach a mature and firm decision concerning a vocation.

Some people think that a call is something dramatic like St. Paul “being knocked off his horse.” Most vocations are manifested in a growing awareness of the desire to serve God as a priest. The desire to serve as a priest needs to be tested. “Why do I want to become a priest?” is an important question. As a young lad, my cousin told me he wanted to drive a big car, so he thought he would like to be a priest. If someone wants to become a priest for social status or personal gain, or to avoid the responsibilities of marriage, or because he was just jilted by his girlfriend, such an individual does not have a vocation and should pursue other career opportunities.

Celibacy

One of the stumbling blocks to a priestly vocation is that the gift of celibacy is not understood in contemporary society. Just as marriage as an institution has been debunked and trivialized by contemporary culture, the witness of consecrated virginity and celibacy has been dismissed as irrelevant and impossible. And yet so many of the problems of modern society are a direct result of the hedonistic approach to sexuality that is being promoted in our contemporary culture. The priest’s life of celibacy does not mean a life in isolation and without friendship. Jesus’ celibacy did not cut Him off from other people; it made Him even more available for His mission to people. A priest’s celibacy is not a rejection of marriage, but rather a call to be married to the community, the Church. Not everyone receives a call to celibacy; but the Church does receive all the gifts She needs.

Recruitment

During times of war, the recruiting posters depicted Uncle Sam pointing a menacing finger and the caption declared: “Uncle Sam wants you!” Many young people felt a need to respond to the challenge, “to make the world safe for democracy,” or “to defend our shores from the threat of invasion.” Anyone who could not respond to the call had to make an examination of conscience and question why he was not responding. In the Church, the Holy Spirit is the vocation director who plants the grace of a vocation in a person’s heart. “Christ wants you!” “The Church needs you!” “God’s people need you!” Sometimes the Holy Spirit’s promptings are very clear in a person’s mind and heart; but more often than not, the Holy Spirit relies on the help of other people to encourage and promote vocations. In our country, the Holy Spirit had very important collaborators in generations of religious women who formed the minds and hearts of millions of Catholic children. I don’t think anyone could come in contact with “the Sisters” and not consider the possibility of a vocation to priesthood or religious life. The Sisters explained the meaning of religious life, celibacy, priesthood and ministry. They challenged our youth to embrace a life of idealism and sacrifice in the service of Christ and the Church, and thousands of young people generously responded.

Catholic Families

Traditionally, Catholic homes have been a privileged place for a vocation to grow and be nurtured by parents who understood the importance of priesthood and religious life. My own family was a great source of encouragement for my vocation. Today, we need to appeal to parents and teachers to instill a sense of vocation in our young Catholics. They should not confine themselves to asking their children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They must also ask “and what do you think God wants you to be?” We must help young people look beyond careers and professions and answer a call from God to be holy. For most young Catholics that call is going to be to married life. We must do all we can to help prepare them for that vocation. We can also be certain that some of our young people are being called by God to lives of special service in the Church, to priesthood, permanent diaconate, and religious life. It is particularly challenging to present the commitment of consecrated life and priest ministry in the context of contemporary culture. Without support, these vocations will go unheeded. Parents can do so much by praying with their children and teaching them to seek God’s will in their lives through vocational discernment. Parents need to have a sense of vocation and mission themselves to pass on to their children. Parents receive their children from God and must be willing to give them back to God for service of His people. In faith parents need to understand that their children’s true happiness depends on a generous response to God’s call and that God is never outdone in generosity and love. Vocations tend to appear in families where the parents are actively involved in the faith formation of their children and instill in them a love and respect for priests and religious. Asking children to pray for priests is a way to signal to the child the importance of priests in our lives and at the same time indicates to the child that priests are human and need the support and prayers of the faith community to persevere in their service to the Church. Following the Church’s calendar and making the seasons and feasts part of our family rituals is also a way to promote Church vocations. Likewise, by honoring the saints, we provide our children with Christian heroes and heroines whose virtues and lives of holiness and service offer challenging examples to new generations of Catholics. Their lives teach us that discipleship implies the cross; but, where there is love and fidelity, life always has a happy ending.