Fr. Roger J. Landry
April 27, 2012
This weekend, on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Church will convene in parishes across the globe to carry out the Good Shepherd’s imperative to beg the Father for good shepherds to continue the work of tending and feeding the Lord’s flock. Jesus foresaw that there would always be a need for shepherds after His own heart and taught the Church ahead of time how to respond. “The harvest is plentiful,” He said, “but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers for His harvest” (Mt 9:38). That is what the Church will faithfully be doing on Sunday.
In order to concentrate the attention of the Church to the importance of praying for and promoting priestly vocations, for the last 49 years the pope has been writing a message to the faithful for this occasion, focusing each year on various aspects of vocational promotion. This year Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter entitled, “Vocations, the Gift of the Love of God.” His essential point was that — in the midst of a secularist society pervaded by material concerns, pleasure-seeking, and radical autonomy from God and others that considers the poor, chaste and obedient priesthood a waste of one’s life — the only way to comprehend and foster priestly vocations is to begin with the love of God. “The profound truth of our existence is contained in this surprising mystery, that every creature, and in particular every human person, is the fruit of God’s thought and an act of His life, a love that is boundless, faithful and everlasting,” Pope Benedict writes. “The discovery of this reality is what truly and profoundly changes our lives.”
That wondrous love of God, present in creation, was shown even more resplendently in the redemption, when God Himself became one of us to save us, and continues in the Church, which the God Who is love instituted in order to continue His work of service, sanctification and salvation until the end of time. That is the context of priestly vocations. “Every specific vocation is born of the initiative of God; it is a gift of the Love of God!,” the Holy Father exclaims. The first step in vocational awareness is to reawaken to the incredible reality of the love of God in general and how the priesthood is an expression of God’s loving us “to the extreme,” which is how St. John introduces the scene of the Last Supper in which Christ ordained His first shepherds. Pope Benedict writes these words, it’s safe to infer, because he believes in many places in our desacralized world, even among Christians, consciousness of the immensity of God’s love has been lost. That’s why he says that “the appealing beauty of this Divine love … needs to be proclaimed ever anew, especially to the younger generations.”
The experience of being loved never leaves us unmoved. When someone says, “I love you,” there is a natural inner impulse to reply with sincerity, “I love you, too.” When someone truly awakens to and experiences even a glimpse of the enormity of God’s love, one can begin to understand the concluding words of a famous English hymn, “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my life, my soul, my all!” Jesus’ first disciples were able to leave their boats and tax-collecting tables behind when Jesus called them because they discovered that God’s love was far more valuable than a big catch and money. Likewise, when the young open their lives to God’s love, the Holy Father says, they begin to recognize that the “high standard of Christian life consists in loving ‘as’ God loves, with a love that is shown in the total, faithful and fruitful gift of self. … It is in this soil of self-offering and openness to the love of God, and as the fruit of that love, that all vocations are born and grow.” Boys raised in homes and in parishes that are inflamed with love of God and for God, that regularly sacrifice out of love for Him and for others, are the seed beds or seminaries in which a priestly vocation to total loving service of God and His people can be more easily discerned. There really is never a “vocations” or “calling” crisis in the Church, because God never ceases to call young men to the priesthood, but rather because of a scant awareness of God’s love and a meager response to it, there’s a crisis in “hearing” that vocation. The soil in which the seeds of priestly vocations develop has to be irrigated by consciousness of God’s love and fertilized by the practice of true Christian love for God and others in homes and parish communities.
There’s a tremendous example of this type of vocational soil in a superb prayer booklet published in 2007 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy. Entitled “Adoration, Reparation and Spiritual Motherhood for Priests,” it lifted up as a model of the type of prayer to the Lord of the harvest that was done in the tiny village of Lu Monferrato in northern Italy. In 1881, when secularism and virulent anti-clericalism were becoming increasingly pronounced, the mothers of this tiny village of a few thousand inhabitants, conscious of the need for priestly vocations, began to gather each Tuesday afternoon for eucharistic adoration to ask the Harvest Master to send priestly laborers. They would together make the following prayer: “O God, grant that one of my sons may become a priest! I myself want to live as a good Christian and want to guide my children always to do what is right, so that I may receive the grace, O God, to be allowed to give You a holy priest!” That prayer, their fervent desire for vocations, and their home’s and parish’s great awareness of the love of God in the blessing of priestly vocations, bore more fruit than any of them could have ever imagined. In the span of a few decades, this one village parish — smaller than many parishes in the Diocese of Fall River — produced 152 priestly vocations and 171 religious women to 41 different congregations.
“The ability to foster vocations is a hallmark of the vitality of a local Church,” Pope Benedict wrote last year. To be spiritually alive, dioceses — and the parishes and families that comprise them — should be generating vocations just as good trees bear good fruit. Few places will be as vocationally prodigious as Lu Monferrato, but every parish and diocese ought to be as committed to prayer and encouraging young people to consider a priestly vocation as were the mothers there. There is a helpful rule-of-thumb promoted by vocations directors: there would never be a shortage of priests in any diocese if each parish were to have just one young man enter the seminary every eight years. With typical attrition rates in seminaries — some who enter the seminary eventually discern that their vocation is elsewhere — this would mean that every parish would have at least one native son ordained a priest every 12 years. Here in the Diocese of Fall River, if every parish were able to achieve this frequency, there would be, on average, eight priestly ordinations a year. Since most priests, if they remain healthy and faithful, will labor at least 30-40 years in the trenches, that would mean there would be about 240-320 priests at any given time divided among the parishes, hospitals, high schools and other ministries of the diocese.
This one-in-eight goal is achievable. In practical terms it means that in a Catholic elementary school with 200 students, approximately 100 of whom are boys, that at least one boy presently in the school would enter the seminary down the road. One out of a hundred. For a parish without a school but with a Faith Formation program of 400 kids, the goal would plant the seed of a priestly vocation in all of them in the hope that it would flower later in at least one of the roughly 200 boys. While there is obviously no way in most circumstances for parishioners to know for certain that a particular young boy has a priestly vocation, there is also no way to know that a young boy does not. It would be hard to imagine that the Harvest Master would not be calling any of the young boys in a particular parish to the priesthood. If each one is treated as one whom the Lord of love might be calling to be a priest in the future, then the odds will surely increase that those whom the Harvest Master is calling to follow Him in this way will hear that call and respond with his life, his soul, his all.