Signs of Hope
Supernatural hope can only be founded on God and His love, on His sustaining presence in the world which gives us confidence and lifts us up from all our concerns and sorrows of this life. Men and women who are profoundly united with God and who bring Him closer to us by their lives become for us signs of hope in the midst of all the despair of our times.
On April 21, 2013, the 4th Sunday of Easter or "Good Shepherd Sunday", the Church will celebrate the 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. As members of the Crusade for Priests, we want to take seriously this call of the Church to pray for vocations, that many young men and women will hear and be open for the call to the priesthood or religious life. "Accepting [Jesus'] invitation means no longer choosing our own path. Following Him means immersing our own will in the will of Jesus, truly giving Him priority, giving Him pride of place in every area of our lives: in the family, at work in our personal interests, in ourselves. It means handing over our very lives to Him, living in profound intimacy with Him" (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations). In order to hear and respond to the call, young men and women need to have a deep, personal experience of Christ, to enter into dialogue with Him through living faith and prayer. "It is necessary…to grow in the experience of faith, understood as a profound relationship with Jesus, as inner attentiveness to His voice which is heard deep within us" (ibid.).
The call to the priesthood or religious life is not an easy vocation. It is a vocation which demands beyond this firm faith in the reality of the supernatural life, an unwavering commitment to Christ and His Cross, and a generosity of heart which is willing to forget oneself in order to live for others. Pope Benedict, addressing priests throughout the world last Holy Thursday, stated,
"Two things, above all, are asked of us:  there is a need for an interior bond, a configuration to Christ, and  at the same time there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much vaunted self-fulfillment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for Him and so for others. Or to put it more specifically, this configuration to Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, who does not take, but rather gives." (Homily of Chrism Mass, April 5, 2012)
Heeding the call to the priesthood is exceptionally challenging in today's society. The media, the internet, the secularized culture in general all point to immediate self-gratification. The world teaches us to take for ourselves, to seek satisfaction in the things of this world, to dominate, to reject authority, to be autonomous. Christ, on the other hand, asks us to give, to serve, to obey, to sacrifice and renounce ourselves like Jesus and for His sake. And this is particularly true for priests and religious, and for all those who hold a position within the Church. In order to serve Christ as He served us, even to the point of giving Himself on the Cross for us, requires a deep faith in God and His love, even in painful situations. It requires an unwavering hope for the things of God and a humility which says, "Not my will, but Thine be done".
The fostering of vocations within the Church, however, is not only a question of the faith and generosity of the individual, but also of the support, fervor and witness of the entire community, beginning with the family: "Normally it is in the family, in the parents' love, and in an early education in the faith that a priestly vocation finds that rich and fertile soil in which availability to the will of God can take root and draw the nourishment it needs" (Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Prefect for the Congregation for the Clergy, January 1, 2013). Within the family, it is particularly the mother who influences the life-decision of her son towards the priesthood. Having carried him in the womb, she has a special bond with him and intercedes with most fervent prayer and intercessions that he may follow the call of God. After ordination, becoming now a "daughter of her son", "towards him she may also exercise a new motherhood through the discreet yet extremely efficacious and inestimably precious closeness of prayer, and by offering of her own life for the ministry of her son" (ibid.).
Not only the family, however, but also the entire parish community can serve as a womb for priestly vocations. The "yes" to the call of God to the priesthood or religious life "is possible in Christian communities where the faith is lived intensely, where generous witness is given of adherence to the Gospel, where there is a strong sense of mission which leads people to make the total gift of self for the Kingdom of God, nourished by recourse to the Sacraments, especially to the Eucharist, and by a fervent life of prayer" (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations). Parishes or even Catholic college communities, Newman centers, home school coops, etc., in which many participate in daily Mass, pray often in the adoration chapel, involve themselves in parish activities and the apostolate, especially in serving the poor, the sick and the under-privileged, are "green houses" for vocations. The witness of generous lay persons who give themselves in service of the Kingdom of God can profoundly influence the hearts of young persons and open them to make the ultimate, total gift of self for Christ.
Vocations once fostered become in turn a sign of hope for the community itself, making them feel with gratitude the closeness of God and His guiding and sustaining presence. "Deep and constant prayer brings about growth in the faith of the Christian community, in the unceasingly renewed certainty that God never abandons His people and that He sustains them by raising up particular vocations – to the priesthood and consecrated life – so that they can be signs of hope for the world. Indeed, priests and religious are called to give themselves unconditionally to the People of God, in a service of love for the Gospel and the Church, serving that firm hope which can only come from an openness to the divine" (ibid.). A good priest or religious makes Christ present to the world, and that gives us hope.
Not least in importance for the fostering of vocations is the witness of priests (and religious) themselves. The authenticity of their message can be sensed by the faithful (and young people, in particular) when they give themselves generously to the community, not just when they are preaching or administering the Sacraments, but always. "We are concerned with the salvation of men and women in body and soul. And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself. People must sense our zeal, through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ" (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily Chrism Mass, April 5, 2012). In the faithful, loving and zealous priest, it becomes easier for people to "see" and follow Jesus. St. Paul told his disciples, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1).
"For his disciples, [St. Paul] was a 'translation' of Christ's manner of life that they could see and identify with. Ever since Paul's time, history has furnished a constant flow of other such 'translations' of Jesus' way into historical figures. We priests can call to mind a great throng of holy priests who have gone before us and shown us the way: from Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, from the great pastors Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, through to Ignatius of Loyola, Charles Borromeo, John Mary Vianney and the priest-martyrs of the 20th century, and finally Pope John Paul II, who gave us an example, through his activity and his suffering, of configuration to Christ as 'gift and mystery'." (ibid.).
In praying for vocations, therefore, we want also to pray for priests, that there may be enthusiastic and "committed priests, who know how to accompany young people as 'companions on the journey', helping them, on life's often tortuous and difficult path, to recognize Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life, telling them, with Gospel courage, how beautiful it is to serve God, the Christian community, one's brothers and sisters" (Pope Benedict XVI, Message for 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations). Priests who ground their lives upon faith in the love God has for us, carry within them a sense of fulfillment and contentedness, which bears witness to the beauty, dignity and joy of the priestly life.
In this Year of Faith, it is to be hoped that many young men and women will encounter Christ through faith, and being touched by the experience of Christ and prayerful dialogue with Him, may have the courage to say "yes" if called to the priesthood or religious life. Let us pray that they "who are presented with so many superficial and ephemeral options, will be able to cultivate a desire for what is truly worthy, for lofty objectives, radical choices, service to others in imitation of Jesus" (ibid.). We ask especially Mary, the Mother of Priests and of priestly vocations, to teach us to offer our lives, our sufferings, our hardships as well as our joys for new vocations and for the sanctification of God's ministers. In this way we will participate in a special way in the motherhood of Holy Church and in the spread of God's Kingdom on earth.
Prayer for Priestly Vocations
O Lord, my God, You renew the Church in every age by raising up priests outstanding in holiness, living witnesses of Your unchanging Love. In Your Plan for our salvation You provide shepherds for Your people.
Fill the hearts of young men with the spirit of courage and love that they may answer Your call generously. Give parents the grace to encourage vocations in their family by prayer and good example.
Raise up worthy priests for Your Altars and ardent, but gentle servants of the Gospel. Give the Church more priests and keep them faithful in their love and service. May many young men choose to serve You by devoting themselves to the service of Your people.
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