By Ryan Thomas, South American Bureau Chief
The New York Times stunned me a bit with a recent article on religious vocations in the U.S. Catholic Church.
Although the Times generally veers toward painting a negative picture of today’s vocational situation – taking the usual punches at celibacy, suggesting that the Church is irrelevant to young people – the storyline here was surprisingly different.
The June article, “In two Michigan towns, a Higher Calling is Heard,” examined why two small areas in the upper Midwest (Fowler and Westphalia, Michigan) have an abnormally high number of young men are responding to the vocational call.
The startling positive piece begins with an important fact: priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography. Therein lies the mystery for the Times. What, then, is driving priestly vocations? For the Times, these two small towns represent a ¨curious case study in the science and mystery of the call to the priesthood.¨
After I read, and re-read the article it became clear to me that there are a few very important conclusions from this case that every Catholic community should incorporate in order to increase and maintain quality vocations.
Following these important and basic tips, I believe that our Catholic communities can create a culture that encourages young men and women to be open to Jesus´s calling and be able to respond with generosity and love to the vocation that Jesus has created them to live.
Eucharistic adoration for vocations. The Times reported that in these two towns, the local parishes had an hour dedicated to prayer for vocations. The Lord Jesus tells us, ¨Ask and you shall receive¨ (Matthew 7:7). We know that the Lord is kind and merciful, that he is abundant in his spiritual gifts, but he also requires that we ask for these gifts. We need more vocations, so let us pray for them and pray for them as a community.
Parental and community support. The decision to give one’s life in service to God and the Church is a difficult one, but so is marriage. If all of your friends told you it was crazy to marry your girlfriend/boyfriend you would probably more than hesitate in asking for their hand in marriage. It is the same when considering a religious vocation. I know of many valiant men and women who did not have the support of their parents or friends when accepting the call. How many more vocations would we have if parents had the same attitude as Agnes Koenigsknecht, mother of two priests, who said, “ They’re not ours to keep. How can you hold them back (from their vocation).”
Ongoing encouragement and support for current seminarians and religious. Today there are many challenges to living a faithful married or religious life. We often celebrate when a young man or woman decides to enter religious life, but what about after? Religious men and women have ups and downs just like the rest of the population. In places where vocations are high, the Times notes that there is constant support, everything from small monetary contributions, to written encouragement from young children.
In October 2013, Pope Francis also gave a few important tips to Chilean Bishop Juan Ignacio González for those that are considering a vocation to the religious life:
It is Jesus that calls you. Pope Francis said, “Let Christ look at you. It is not the priest, the bishop or the Pope that is calling you. It is Jesus who is lovingly looking at you. He shows you the people, the needs of the People of God and he says to you: if you want, you can help me.”
Rejecting your vocational call causes sadness. Jesus called the rich young man, a man with many gifts, but the rich young man chose not to respond. Pope Francis says, “If you do not follow, you are free, but look at the sadness that you produce in the heart of the Lord, and the sadness you produce in so many other hearts for the lack of one priest.”
Do not be foolish. “When the Lord takes your hand, he never lets go.” Jesus is faithful to all that he calls. If he calls you, he will never abandon you.
It is true that the Catholic Church has experienced a decline in vocations, but there are communities where vocations are flourishing and the Lord has not left us alone. He is showing us how healthy Catholic communities live. It is up to each one of us to put our part, to pray for vocations, to create a culture of acceptance and to provide ongoing support.