This weekend will see the celebration of a joyful event in the Diocese of Providence, the ordination of two of our brothers, Scott Carpentier and Thomas Woodhouse, to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.
We congratulate our new priests and their families and friends. Their ordination is the culmination of several years of hard work and sincere prayer, and a generous outpouring of God’s grace. And we will continue to pray for our new priests, that they will always be joyful and faithful servants of the Lord Jesus Christ and His Church.
While we are truly grateful to God for raising-up two new shepherds for the flock, we recognize at the same time that we need many, many more vocations to the priesthood if the work of the Church is to continue and prosper in the years to come. Remember that during the last two years, the Diocese of Providence has lost the active service of approximately 25 priests. This comes from death, retirements, ministry outside of the Diocese, leaves of absence, and the withdrawal of religious communities which had been serving here. A loss of 25 priests in just two years!
In the same period, however, we will have ordained only five new priests for service in our diocese. That’s a net loss of 20 priests serving the Catholic people in the State of Rhode Island. It is likely that this pattern will continue for the foreseeable future.
Several questions arise. How do we respond to this rapidly changing picture? Are there other ways in which we can serve the spiritual and pastoral needs of God’s people? How do we promote more vocations to the priesthood? And who’s responsible for finding and supporting more vocations? It’s this last question I’d like to focus on today.
Who’s responsible for finding and supporting more vocations to the priesthood? Well, the answer is simple: you are!
We recognize, first of all, that it’s not easy for a young man to consider the priesthood in our day and age. In his important Apostolic Letter on the formation of priests, Pastores Dabo Vobis, (1992), Blessed Pope John Paul II identified some of the obstacles to a religious vocation today. Among those he mentioned are the subjectivity and extreme individualism of our age; the practical atheism and secularism of our culture; the break-up of the traditional family; the distortion of the authentic meaning of human sexuality; the lack of comprehensive and effective religious education in recent times; and, in some places, the lack of priests who can serve as enthusiastic role models for young people. (#7)
If we examine our own culture we can see how many of the obstacles described by the Pope are prevalent today. And these obstacles aren’t theoretical; they’re real and operative.
One of the reasons I admire our seminarians so much is that in deciding to follow the Lord’s call they’re truly swimming against the tide; their decision is counter-cultural; it demands a great deal of courage. Some of our seminarians enter the formation program without much support from family and friends, sometimes even over the objection of their parents.
How do we counter these trends? Well it seems to me that in the midst of the secular desert in which we are living, it’s the role of the Church community to create a spiritual oasis in which a young man can quietly listen to the voice of Christ and then summon the courage he needs to take that “leap of faith” and follow the Lord Jesus.
The priests who serve in our Vocations Office and Seminary work really hard and do an outstanding job trying to promote and foster vocations. It’s not an easy task. It can be challenging and, sometimes, even discouraging. But it’s unfair to place this enormous task on their shoulders alone. The whole Catholic community has an obligation to identify, encourage and support vocations to the priesthood.
In Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul explained that a priestly vocation is a gift from God to the individual recipient, but also a gift to the entire Church, a “benefit to her life and mission.” Therefore, the Church “is called to safeguard this gift, to esteem it and love it. She is responsible for the birth and development of priestly vocations.” (#41)
John Paul continues: “There is an urgent need, especially nowadays, for a more widespread and deeply felt conviction that all members of the Church, without exception, have the grace and responsibility to look after vocations.”
The Pope then goes on to list the specific roles that various members of the Church have to play in promoting vocations – bishops, priests, parents, catechists, teachers and youth ministers, and particular groups and organizations. In other words, we all have a role to play, a contribution to make in promoting vocations to the priesthood. It’s a privilege to do so, but also an obligation. Without the ministry of ordained priests, the saving work of Jesus Christ in the world and through the Church cannot and will not continue.
This is an urgent matter. Therefore, before God, we need to examine our collective diocesan conscience on this matter. Do we take this mandate seriously? Are we doing enough? Are there other, more effective ways of promoting and encouraging priestly vocations?
Think about it, pray about it, please!
(Note to readers – I’ll be taking a little break from writing for awhile. But thank you for reading so faithfully. Perhaps I’ll see you in this space again in the future – Bishop Tobin.)