ARCHBISHOP LUCAS: Prayer, encouragement crucial to promoting priestly vocations
June 17, 2021
In this month’s discussion, Archbishop George J. Lucas discusses with communications manager David Hazen the challenge of inviting and disposing young men to consider a vocation to the diocesan priesthood.
Q: On Saturday, June 5, you led a holy hour for vocations at St. Cecilia Cathedral, the culmination of a week of similar holy hours held at parishes across the archdiocese. That Saturday hour was deliberately planned for the time and place which would otherwise have seen the annual Mass of Ordination, correct?
Yes. Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to ordain any new priests for the Archdiocese of Omaha this year. This is an occasion for us to really focus on praying that the Lord will bless us with the priestly vocations that he wants us to have, and to think about how each of us in our own way can be instruments of invitation to young men whom the Lord might be calling.
Q: In the general intercessions at Sunday Mass in many parishes, petitions are routinely offered for vocations to the priesthood. It seems there are many in the Church who are praying for this on a continual basis. Why do you think we do not seem to be receiving the response we desire?
If I knew the answer to that, I could write the book! This is a challenge in dioceses across the country and in many parts of the world.
We have really been blessed here in this archdiocese. We have had good and holy priests, and so we should not have a mindset of scarcity or shortage. We should be grateful first and always, but then should also ask, “How can we continue to provide this blessing for ourselves and for the people who come after us?”
Priesthood is a call from the Lord and requires a free response on the part of the one called. We can’t just make priests out of thin air. We respect the plan of Jesus, and we respect the freedom of those whom he is calling.
But I think what we have come to realize – and this year focuses that realization – is that we must be missing some opportunities. Along with our prayer, we need to reflect on the best way to approach this challenge for our local church. It seems to me that some of what we do is unfocused, and as with anything we do regularly, it can become somewhat routine. We may offer a general sort of prayer in our parishes or families, but may not see that we also have a part in identifying those who may be called and facilitating their response.
At the Chrism Mass, when priests of the archdiocese were all together this year, I talked about this challenge and encouraged us all to take it more personally – to think about the young men in our parishes and our schools who might have a call from the Lord, who might have the qualities that would help them be good priests. I encouraged the priests – as I encourage everyone – to pray, by name, for those whom the Lord might be calling.
In all my years as a priest and a bishop, I have never found that a young man is insulted by the suggestion that I think he might make a good priest or that the Lord might be calling him. Sometimes I think we might be afraid that would be putting pressure on somebody, which we certainly don’t want to do. But in recent years, perhaps it’s been the opposite – that we haven’t really been explicit enough in inviting and supporting young men.
Once men come into the seminary in this archdiocese, they receive great support. I am so very grateful to people around the archdiocese for that. But it’s the previous step that we may be missing: encouraging a young man who is thinking about the possibility of priesthood to see that there is a way forward for him and a step he could take. Father Roza, our vocations director, does a great job in reaching out and being in contact with those who think priesthood might be their vocation.
I think we all need to do a little bit more of that, but we don’t want to attempt it without prayer.
We are aware that we cannot have the Eucharist without priests, as the Lord has designed the life of our Church. We have all had the opportunity during the pandemic to think about the value of the Eucharist in our lives and the importance of being part of the Mass week by week. And that should lead us to value more than ever the gift of the priesthood, and to see that we are not going to have a vibrant future in our families and our parishes without priests who stand in the person of Jesus at the head of the worshiping community.
Q: You said a free response is required, which is true of any of the vocations. What do you think gets in the way of young men making a free and generous response to a priestly vocation?
That’s a good question. Before there can be a response, there has to be an invitation, and then a recognition that one is being invited. We can take a step back and ask, “Why might people not be hearing the invitation?”
Our culture is noisy, and young people especially are very busy. Social media is noisy and immediate, and seems to demand a response.
Those of us who have some influence in the lives of young people – parents, teachers, priests, youth ministers, coaches, mentors – should communicate that we have each been created for an important and good purpose. God has a plan for each of us, and following it means having a fulfilling life – not necessarily an easy life. I think that we may have lost a culture of vocation, the sense that everyone is being called.
I think sometimes we corner young people and ask, “Well, what do you want to do?” Or, “What kind of degree are you going to get?” And they feel like they must answer something that they’re not ready to answer. We want young people to have a hope-filled understanding that God does have a plan. We need to provide them opportunities to pray, and to pray in a way that is not only talking to the Lord, but also listening to him. We should invite them to quiet places where they can spend time in silence, and not fill it up with chatter. We need to help them understand that it can be good to just sit in the presence of the Lord and see what he might offer.
I am confident that if we sit in the presence of the Lord and allow him to speak to us, he will begin to reveal the Father’s plan. Jesus was sent among us with a mission and he shares that saving mission with us in a variety of ways and vocations in the Church, but in a very particular way in the priesthood.
Those who work with high school and college students indicate that there is a great deal of anxiety among young people in all kinds of situations and for all kinds of reasons. And any of us can think about the future and ask, “What’s expected of me? And can I do it?” That can be anxiety-inducing. We do not want to play into that or make that worse by saying, “Well, you better figure out what the Lord wants, then you better do it.”
Even before the anxieties of the modern age, there was a sense among young people that the Lord might ask something of me that I really do not want to do. And then I am in a catch-22: If I do it, I’m not going to be happy, and if I don’t do it, I’m going to be miserable because I’m not doing what the Lord is asking me to do. All of that thinking is from the Evil One. That is not at all how the Lord operates.
Our challenge then is to try to communicate to young people that it is good to come close to the Lord in prayer, and to do so regularly. We can help provide those opportunities and allow him to reveal his love for them first. As young people become more convinced of that love, they are more open to hear how he answers the question, “What do I do with this life that I have been given?”
In a sense, you cannot make a mistake unless you choose something evil. Sometimes anxiety comes from the thought that we have got to get this “right.” At a certain point in our lives, particularly regarding our vocation, we are asked to make a commitment that is binding. But there are many steps to get to that point, and they are all designed to help us come to a decision with confidence and freedom such that we can say yes to the plan of the Lord.