Responding to the church's need for vocations isn't a responsibility just for some, but for all
Just over one year ago, I had the privilege of opening the cause for the canonization of Father Edward Flanagan, a priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha and the founder of Boys Town.
A quiet process of investigating Father Flanagan's life and work has been moving ahead over these months. Meanwhile, with the approval of the Holy See, we are able to refer to him as "Servant of God." The Father Flanagan League has been generous in providing resources for prayers through Father Flanagan's intercession and in encouraging pilgrimages to the place of his burial.
The process of presenting someone of heroic virtue for possible canonization is long and detailed in most cases. I am glad to know this process is so well begun here. I also am glad to see it is already bearing good fruit. For example, a poster has begun to appear around the archdiocese that bears a photo of Father Flanagan and an invitation to young men to consider following him to serve as an archdiocesan priest. Happily there are many fine examples of priestly life and service, both past and present, which might inspire men in this archdiocese to think about responding to the call of Jesus as they did.
Pray for 'workers'
On this Sunday, April 21, we mark the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. This is the 50th anniversary of this yearly observance. It was instituted by another Servant of God, Pope Paul VI, while the Second Vatican Council was still in session. He and the popes since his time have reminded us year in and year out to do what Jesus has urged us to do: to pray to the Father to send workers for his church.
Pope Paul VI stated when he began the day of prayer, "The problem of having a sufficient number of priests has an immediate impact on all of the faithful: not simply because they depend on it for the religious future of Christian society, but also because this problem is the precise and inescapable indicator of the vitality of faith and love of individual parish and diocesan communities, and the evidence of the moral health of Christian families. Wherever numerous vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life are to be found, that is where people are living the Gospel with generosity."
You could count on Pope Paul VI to be both direct in his present analysis and clear about what the future might hold. When I consider the situation in the Archdiocese of Omaha, I read the words of Pope Paul VI not as an indictment but as a challenge. The theme of this World Day of Prayer for Vocations (in the Year of Faith) is: Vocations as a sign of hope founded in faith. In our archdiocese, I see many signs that the faith runs very deep. We are blessed with many strong Catholic families as well as vibrant parishes and schools. There is reason to hope we will receive the priestly religious vocations we need for the future.
It is not an exercise in Christian hope, however, simply to wish for blessings for the future without being willing to cooperate with God's plan for providing them. The culture outside of the walls of our homes and churches is crass and immediate. So much of what our young people see and hear keeps them from reflecting seriously on the call of Jesus to his disciples and friends. Certainly there is little in secular culture that supports the value of priestly or consecrated life. Still I believe we owe it to the youth of our church to lead them to think seriously about the real possibility of a priestly or religious vocation. Every family and every Catholic apostolate that works with young people should have this as a priority.
Some years ago, while I was still serving as a priest in St. Louis, I was asked to be part of a strategic planning process for a Catholic girls high school. The school enjoyed an excellent Catholic culture and identity, due in no small part to the religious sisters who sponsored the school and who served as a significant portion of the faculty. It was clearly a concern of all those involved in planning for the future that there be sufficient sisters on the staff.
At the same time, it was difficult to sustain a discussion about how that might happen and who would be responsible for it. Attention turned, at least implicitly, to a motherhouse far away that presumably would take care of sending sisters. I wondered why parents, alumni and the school board did not think they had a crucial role in identifying and encouraging women to consider the consecrated life. I wonder still.
I enjoy visiting parishes across the archdiocese. Part of my joy is watching parish priests interact with parishioners. I receive so many words of appreciation about our priests. Rarely, I hear from someone who would like to have his parish priest replaced by another. Whenever a pastor is nearing the end of his term or approaching retirement, I will always hear from those who are concerned that they receive a good replacement. I share that concern.
Where will the priests come from who will accept new assignments this summer? Who has provided the priest who serves so faithfully at your parish today? They were formed and encouraged first in someone else's family and in a parish other than yours. Most likely they have been invited by a priest to consider that Jesus might be calling them.
Initiated by God
It seems to me that every family, every parish and every priest should accept explicitly the responsibility to pray for and encourage young men and women among them to consider a priestly or religious vocation, if it is God's will for them. And we should speak and act as if it is our sincere hope that God would call someone we know and love.
It is important to remember that a vocation to the priesthood, to the diaconate and to the consecrated life is a good in itself. It is good because God initiates it. It is good because it involves a response, in generosity and humility, with one's life. We appreciate the pastoral care, the formation of the young and the education that these vocations make possible. We have to be careful not to look for vocations in others only so we can have our own spiritual needs met, as if we were only consumers.
As Pope Paul VI reminded us 50 years ago, being open in our desire and support for vocations is a sign of vitality in a parish and moral health in a Christian home. I invite you to join me in prayer this week for vocations: God our Father, we thank you for calling men and women to serve in your Son's kingdom as priests, deacons, religious and consecrated persons. Send your Holy Spirit to help us respond generously and courageously to your call. May our community of faith support vocations of sacrificial love in our youth. Amen.