God’s voice is never silent — he is always calling to us to come nearer, to go deeper, to respond to the love he has for us every day. What’s more, he never stops calling people to religious vocations — to the priesthood, to religious life. Even amidst on-going scandals in our Church — heartbreaking and devastating as they are — God is still calling. The need for good and upright priests and religious is even greater … maybe more so than at any time in recent memory.
The vocations shortage in this country is real. It affects all Catholics in some way. While some regions have encouraging numbers on the increase, still many dioceses, such as my own, have priestly shortages that lead to the closing of churches, or places where priests minister to two or three churches at once.
The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports the number of U.S. parishes without a resident priest has gone from less than 600 in 1970 to more than 3,500 in 2017. The numbers of people entering religious life doesn’t seem much better. I often preside at the funerals of women and men religious who have been my teachers in the past, and I don’t see many young faces in the pews.
The state of Catholic marriage today is also part of the vocations crisis. As a young priest, some 30 years ago, I would preside at perhaps 25 weddings a year. Now I average two. The simple fact is that many couples are not entering into marriage with the benefit of the grace of the sacrament, or raising families with ties to the Church. Many do not view Matrimony as the true vocation that it is. This, too, is a crisis.
When there is a crisis, it’s a good idea to go back to the basics, to the building blocks underlying the situation. In this case, we start with a very basic question: What is a vocation? You might say, “Well, that’s obvious. A vocation is a calling from God to a particular way of life.” That’s true enough, but I would suggest that we have a murky sense of how God calls all Christians — young and old — to live out the discipleship they share by virtue of their Baptism. We seem to lack clarity about the intersection of faith and life, the need for grace, and the exciting challenge discipleship lends to the unique journey of the Christian woman or man.
Every Christian has a vocation — a fundamental call to holiness. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, the Creator has been calling each one of us back to himself out of love. The way back is through Jesus the Lord, through his Church, and through the sacraments, those privileged conduits of grace instituted by Christ himself.
This is why we refer to holiness as the universal vocation. In our own state of life, when we strive daily to know, love, and serve God, we are responding to that vocation. Some discern the path to priesthood or consecrated life; many more to marriage and family life. But what a difference it makes for us to live out our particular vocation as God’s friends, benefiting from the sacramental life of the Church.
Last month at the Vatican, the synod of bishops met to consider the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” Earlier this year, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the synod said the aim of that gathering was to “make the whole Church aware of her important and [non-]optional task of accompanying every young person, without exclusion, towards the joy of love.”
What a striking phrase! Who would not want “the joy of love” in his or her life?
So perhaps the first question is not “What could be done to encourage more young adults to pursue the priesthood or religious life or marriage in the Church?” but rather “How might we inspire young people to recognize the need for the grace of the sacraments and a relationship with the Risen Jesus as an integral part of their journey and search for holiness and true happiness?”
Perhaps it’s not so much about convincing people to walk a particular path, but rather that we inspire one another by the joy of living the Gospel, and praying with the mind and heart of Christ.