Sunday, April 26, 2015

Vocation Sunday

Today is the 52nd Annual “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” Blessed Paul VI first instituted this “World Day of Prayer for Vocations” in 1963, appropriately assigning it to the Sunday in the Easter season when the Gospel account of Jesus the Good Shepherd is read (at that time, the 2nd Sunday after Easter, but in the current calendar the following Sunday, now known as the 4th Sunday of Easter). 

Hearing and following the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd, writes Pope Francis in his official message for this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, means letting ourselves be attracted and guided by him, in consecration to him; it means allowing the Holy Spirit to draw us into this missionary dynamism, awakening within us the desire, the joy and the courage to offer our own lives in the service of the Kingdom of God.

So today the entire Church associates itself with the Lord’s command to pray for vocations. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest (Matthew 9:38; Luke 10:2). Conscious of the Church’s pressing need both to shepherd the faithful and to reach out as missionaries to evangelize the secular world, the Church concentrates our attention today especially on vocations to the ordained ministries (the priesthood and the diaconate), and also to Institutes of Consecrated Life in all its forms (male and female religious communities, both contemplative and active), to Societies of Apostolic Life (like the Paulist Fathers), and to Secular Institutes.

The end of June will bring to its termination just over a century of my religious community's ministry at Saint Peter’s parish in Toronto, Ontario. Already in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the Paulist Fathers conducted parish missions in several Canadian provinces. In addition, from 1965 through 1972, they also had a presence in Vancouver, British Columbia, and from 1973 through 1990 in Montreal, Quebec. The imminent departure from Toronto signals the end of Paulist ministry in Canada, which makes this withdrawal particularly poignant. (It is additionally so for me personally, since I was ordained a priest at St. Peter’s Church in Toronto and happily served my first priestly assignment there at that parish.) I mention all of this because withdrawals from parishes and other ministries to which a religious community has long been committed are one more obvious consequence of insufficient vocations. Yet it was not that long ago that things looked different. For example, the year I entered the novitiate in 1981 saw the last significant expansion of my community's ministry to a new city – to a parish in Seattle, WA, where we served for just 8 years, before departing from there in the first of a series of withdrawals from several community commitments. In other words, I can personally remember when we were still in a position to expand in response to new evangelizing opportunities and pastoral challenges, and that I have personally witnessed what the decline in vocations has done to the present and future prospects of the Church in the United States for which Servant of God Isaac Hecker held out so much hope.

The Church, Pope Francis reminds us in his World Day of Prayer for Vocations message, is faithful to her Master to the extent that she is a Church which "goes forth" ... She is meant to be a Church which evangelizes, goes out to encounter humanity, proclaims the liberating word of the Gospel, helas people's spiritual and physical wounds with the grace of God, and offers relief to the poor and the suffering.

The catastrophic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious community life in recent decades is undoubtedly due to many factors. And obviously not all problems can be solved, and certainly not easily or quickly. Yet, for religious communities to continue their mission in the modern world – indeed, for the Church to continue its mission in the United States – there is no getting around the need to encourage, foster, and support in every possible way a significant increase in the number of men and women committing themselves to full-time ministry in the Church as priests and religious. Today’s observance is intended to remind us all of this basic need and to challenge each of us to respond in prayer and action. 

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