Priestly Vocations: Not From Test Tubes

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Excitement is growing as the Diocese of Providence looks forward to the ordination of five new priests – the largest class we’ve had for a while.

The five priests about to be ordained are extraordinary young men – call them the “Fab Five” if you will. They come from very diverse backgrounds and personal experiences, but they share a desire to serve the Lord and His Church. We’re deeply grateful for the generosity of our ordinands, and we pray that God will help them to be faithful and joyful ministers of the Lord.

In celebrating our new priests, however, it’s important to remember that their vocations didn’t appear mysteriously out of nowhere, out of some sort of ecclesiastical test tube. These vocations began when God planted the seed in their souls, seeds which were then carefully nourished over the years by the Church, and by their families and friends. We congratulate the families of our new priests – and particularly their parents. What a great day this is for you too!

Our new priests prove that God still calls men to the priesthood, but they also remind us that it’s the work of the whole Church to recognize and encourage vocations to this special service in the Church.

Pope Benedict made this point very clearly during his recent visit to the United States. In addressing the American Bishops, the Pope said: “Let us be quite frank: the ability to cultivate vocations to the priesthood and the religious life is a sure sign of the health of the local Church. There is no room for complacency in this regard. God continues to call young people; it is up to all of us to encourage a generous and free response to that call.”

Pope Benedict’s words echo the message of Pope John Paul II who wrote in Pastores Dabo Vobis: “There is an urgent need, especially nowadays, for a more widespread and deeply felt conviction that all the members of the Church, without exception, have the grace and responsibility to look after vocations.”

We know that it’s not easy to encourage vocations to the priesthood today. We’re living in a spiritual desert, often bereft of God’s presence, frequently disdainful of things religious and spiritual. Our young people face so many challenges, distractions and temptations that tend to lead them out of the Church and away from Christ. It’s exceedingly difficult today for a young man to hear the voice of the Lord and to respond with a generous heart.

In Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul described some of the obstacles that discourage priestly vocations today. Among others he mentioned the personal subjectivity that hinders the ability to relate to others; the practical atheism of our society; the break-up of marriage and family life; a distorted notion of human sexuality; ignorance of the teachings of the Church; and in some places the lack of priests to minister to others and to serve as models for priestly life.

For awhile we also went through a period when some priests, and perhaps others in the Church, refused to encourage priestly vocations in a vain attempt to force changes in the Church. They didn’t promote vocations because they wanted to alter the hierarchical nature of the Church, or do away with mandatory celibacy, or encourage the ordination of women. Fortunately, that misguided mindset is a relic of the past and most members of the Church are now eager to embrace the renewed Church of the 21st century.

But where do we go from here to promote priestly vocations in the midst of such an unfriendly climate? Well, if in fact we’re living in a “spiritual desert,” we’ve got to create a “spiritual oasis” in the midst of the desert. We have to create an ambience, a space in which young men can peacefully listen to God’s voice in their lives.

Everyone in the Church has a role to play in this work: Bishops and priests, deacons, consecrated religious, teachers, youth ministers, and parents. Yes, parents, above all, have a special obligation to encourage their sons to listen to the Lord and accept the call to the priesthood, if indeed that’s what God has in mind!

We’ve got to work with young people. That means: giving good example in the practice of our Faith; helping them to understand the Gospel of Christ and teachings of the Church; involving them in the life of the Church, in our parishes and schools; talking to them about priesthood and helping them see the goodness of serving the Lord; and praying with young people, and teaching them to pray.

Pope Benedict made that point beautifully in speaking to the American Bishops: “To the extent that we teach young people to pray, and to pray well, we will be cooperating with God’s call. The discernment of a vocation is above all the fruit of an intimate dialogue between the Lord and his disciples. Young people, if they know how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.”

That’s the key to all discipleship isn’t it – learning to pray? We work so hard to promote vocations, but sometimes we overlook the most effective weapon of all: prayer, for young people, and with young people.

The Pope said that the ability to cultivate vocations to the priesthood is a sure sign of a healthy Church. I know that the Church in the Diocese of Providence is healthy. Let’s get to work, then, by calling forth many more fine young men to follow the Lord in the priesthood.