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Archbishop Lucas: Fostering a culture of vocational discernment

While spring may be wedding and graduation season, it’s also the season for ordinations to the diaconate and priesthood. In this week’s interview, communications manager David Hazen asks Archbishop George J. Lucas to reflect on what it means to foster a culture of vocational discernment, especially to the diocesan priesthood.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by young men who might be discerning a call to the priesthood?

Since I’m quite a bit older than most of them are, I try to listen and let them speak for themselves. I can say one of the broadest answers is the secular culture in which young people are growing up. Many of those who discern a call to the priesthood come from Catholic families, of course, but there’s such a prevailing wind in the current culture that pulls us in the direction of thinking that everything is settled in this world and that there really isn’t another world or a life beyond this one.

Any vocation in the church, but particularly the priesthood, is about how to live in this world so as to be ready to have full life in the next world. If it’s not just immediately accepted that there is a next world or that it makes any difference, then it’s the kind of vocation that perhaps doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Maybe people see the call to the priesthood as a kind of rejection of the married vocation. It is not rejecting something. It really is a response to a positive call, a call from the Lord.

Our culture is very utilitarian, and I’m afraid many young people grow up today with a sense that they have to figure out what they’re supposed to do and how much money they’re supposed to make and where they’re supposed to fit in society, without an awareness of the fact that there’s a world beyond this world, and that the things that we do and experience here reverberate into eternity. There is a larger meaning for who we are and what we do, and we can come to understand what that is by God’s grace. There are many examples of people who have gone before us in our church and in the world who have discovered that about themselves and about God’s plan for them. They have been very happy and fulfilled themselves and also have made a huge contribution in the lives of other people.

Q: So how can young people grow in certainty about their vocations? And specifically, how can a young man know he’s called to the priesthood?

Pope Benedict said on more than one occasion that young people should be encouraged to spend time with the Lord in prayer. The more they spend time with him, the clearer their vocation becomes. We make ourselves available for the Lord to communicate to us our vocation, the plan that is really for our good, for our flourishing.

It is beautiful to see how in many of our schools and youth programs, young people are led to spend time in reflection and contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament, or to reflect prayerfully with one another in response to the Scriptures. They discover in those moments of prayer that the Lord really will speak to them.

When we’re growing up, we also benefit from the guidance and the encouragement of adults whom we respect and who we sense respect us and want good for us. So, parents, teachers, friends, family, coaches and all of us who have influence over young people ought to make it our responsibility to reflect back to them their beautiful tendencies to be generous, to be faithful, to be prayerful. Particularly, if we see a young man who we think has qualities that might serve him and the church well in the priesthood, we should say that, respectfully.

I think it’s very appropriate to encourage young men to ask the Holy Spirit to help enlighten them about their own gifts and about God’s desires for them. We want to affirm the goodness that we see in people and help them see that their life has such value in itself and in God’s plan. They can, as good stewards of that gift, dedicate themselves to something that’s important. And they’ll love doing it as they figure out what it is.

Q: We often hear talk of a “priest shortage.” It may seem like an obvious question to many, but how do we know whether or not we have the right number of priests? 

I don’t know what the “right” number is. I’ve mentioned in various places around the archdiocese that in my prayer every morning, I pray for more vocations and I tell the Lord, “If you’re asking me, I think we need more priests.” But then I put that in his hands.

I see the good that is done by generous, dedicated priests, and I’d like to see more of that. How many priests does the Lord want us to have and how many do we need to fulfill his plan for our archdiocese, for our parishes? I don’t know the exact number. We know that it is his will that we have priests, and our people want and need the sacraments. So it is important that we foster vocations to the priesthood, that we pray for them, and support those who are called. 

I would hope that there is no young man in our archdiocese who’s being called by the Lord to the priesthood, who cannot hear the call because his community is not supportive or the culture is so noisy.

That’s where the rest of us come in. We don’t just target a man and say, “You’re going to be a priest,” or to a parish, “We need five from here or else.” That wouldn’t work anyway. 

But we want to make sure that every young man at least thinks about it. That was certainly the context that I grew up in, which was a long time ago, of course. Almost every Catholic boy that I grew up with at least thought about the priesthood and thought about himself as a priest. It was pretty normal for us to see that as something that we should each think about.

I’m not sure that’s the case now. But I think it is the responsibility of the Catholic community to create a culture in which young people are invited to know that God has something very special in mind for them, something that is good not just for them but for the rest of the community. They can come to know it through prayer and through conversation with other people who are wise and who respect them, and they can explore it more explicitly.

A young man who feels he may be called to the priesthood can have a conversation with a priest, with our vocation director, with a spiritual director, with others, and can apply to the seminary. There is a path that would lead to the priesthood for somebody who is called to it, and we can help him follow that path.

Q: What else can we do to foster a culture of discernment and of support for vocations?

We have very active Serra clubs in the archdiocese and their mission is to support vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life. They provide prayer resources in parishes and many parishes take up those prayers on a regular basis. I encourage that.

As we think about the question of the “right” number of priests, I would point out that we have more than the average number and much better than average quality of priests in our archdiocese. One way to show respect for the priesthood is for the laity in the parish to come alongside the priest and offer – not just to the priest but to the whole parish, to the Lord – their own gifts such that we see every baptized person is being called by the Lord to contribute to the evangelizing efforts of the church. We shouldn’t put a priest on a pedestal, nor should we depend on him to do all the work of keeping the life of the parish going. That is something that we all share.

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