This Sunday is the 47th annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The designated theme for this year’s observance is Witness Awakens Vocations.
My picture of a chalice standing on the altar waiting to be picked up by someone is one way, I feel, of picturing the situation of the Church’s need for vocations today.
In his Message for the 47th Annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Benedict XVI has written: “The fruitfulness of our efforts to promote vocations depends primarily on God’s free action, yet, as pastoral experience confirms, it is also helped by the quality and depth of the personal and communal witness of those who have already answered the Lord’s call to the ministerial priesthood and to the consecrated life, for their witness is then able to awaken in others a desire to respond generously to Christ’s call. This theme is thus closely linked to the life and mission of priests and of consecrated persons.”
God calls us all to be part of his Church, which continues Christ’s presence and action in the world. Within the Church, God calls different people to different roles - not just for themselves (although obviously they will benefit from following God’s call) but for the service of the whole Church. To discern one’s vocation is to figure out what role in the Church one seems best fitted for. In human terms I think this means a particular vocation appears attractive in some way and seems a good fit for one’s personality, talents, etc. As Isaac Hecker said, “grace does not set aside, but answers, purifies, elevates & invigorates nature,” I believe God gives each of us the grace to follow through on what our natural sensibilities suggest we should do with our lives. Of course, one’s individual judgment can be mistaken. The Church must confirm one’s vocation to a ministry in the Church. There is no true vocation without an affirming call from the Church.
In the history of the Church, there have been some – St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Augustine of Hippo, for example – who accepted a vocation to priestly ministry only in response to the insistence of the faithful. Such stories remind us of two very important points. The first is that a valid vocation requires a call from the Church, which tests and evaluates an individual’s aspiration to ministry. The second is that the entire People of God has an important role - and responsibility – in fostering and evaluating vocations. Dioceses and religious communities have “vocation directors” who do this full-time, but all of us in a sense are – and need to be – “vocation directors” for the whole Church. Whenever we recognize in someone signs of suitability for the life and ministry of a priest, we need, for the good of the whole Church, to challenge him to hear that, and then encourage and support him in his discernment and commitment.