At the beginning of July, in Orlando, I was privileged to attend the National Convocation of Catholic Leaders organized by the bishops of the United States. I was accompanied by 25 members of our archdiocese whom I had invited to participate because of their present involvement in the life of our local Church.
The chief theme of the national convocation echoed the theme of our own archdiocesan pastoral plan; namely, as Pope Francis says, that every Catholic recognize that he or she, by baptism and confirmation, is a “missionary disciple” called to bear witness to Christ in daily life and to invite others into our shared communion as members of the Church.
With the help of dynamic speakers who have successfully promoted a way forward for the Church in our country, the convocation tackled some of the serious challenges to faith and practice that we face today. Of the many issues that were discussed, one in particular stands out: the crisis of vocations. In my remarks at the convocation, I put it this way: An increasing number of our young people are shying away from embracing a Christian “state of life,” as evidenced by the delay and decreasing numbers of sacramental marriages, ordinations to the priesthood and consecrations to religious life.
You’ll notice that it is not just a crisis for priesthood and religious life, but marriage and family life, too. Part of our archdiocesan pastoral planning is focused on the challenge to revitalize a new generation of young Catholics who believe and practice their faith, and who hear and respond generously to God’s call, whatever it may be.
I am happy to report that our archdiocesan Office of Vocations has developed a strategic plan for the next three years to create “a culture of vocations” among us. What is envisioned involves everyone at various levels: not only the engagement of the clergy, but also parents, teachers and youth ministers, parishes, schools and colleges. Prayer is essential, but so is a communal effort to encourage and invite our young people to hear and heed God’s call. The entire plan can be found on our website at www.hartfordpriest.com.
The special focus will be our need to address the shortage of priests. As the plan notes: “We have gone from 193 seminarians in 1965 to just 19 seminarians in 2017 — statistically, the largest decrease of all key indicators, including Mass attendance, marriages, baptisms and students in Catholic schools. The problem is particularly stark when one considers that in 10 years, the archdiocese will have only 104 active diocesan priests for approximately 130 pastorates. Even with our new pastoral restructuring, this can rightly be described as a crisis in priestly vocations.”
Faith assures us that God has a providential and loving plan for everyone and everything, especially his Church. However much we may think that the Church’s problems are intractable, nothing is impossible with God. As a wise churchman once observed, “The possibilities of God begin precisely where human possibilities end.” As people who are firmly convinced of the action of the Holy Spirit, we can believe in a new springtime. We need not fear the future.
To the extent that all of us are “docile to the Holy Spirit,” we can expect a new springtime of vocational commitment, too. I say “all of us” because a vocation — whether to marriage, priesthood or religious consecration — takes root and grows through the support of family, friends, parishioners and the community. It is very sad that sometimes parents are not supportive when their children indicate an interest in a religious vocation. It is equally sad when we priests do not do all that we should to promote these vocations.
With regard to the priesthood, Pope St. John Paul the Great once wrote: “Let every believer become an educator of vocations, without fearing to propose radical choices; let every community understand the centrality of the Eucharist and the necessity for ministers of the Eucharistic sacrifice; let the whole People of God raise an ever more intense and impassioned prayer to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into His harvest.”
In the spirit of these words, I ask everyone in the archdiocese to do the following:
• Educate yourself about vocations and their discernment so that you will have good information to pass on to others as an effective advocate for vocations;
• Personally invite the young people in your life to pray and to seek out God’s plan for them. If you see someone you think would be a good priest or religious sister or brother, ask if he or she has considered it. You will be serving as God’s instrument, lending your voice to Christ; and
• Pray. Jesus told us: “Pray to the Master of the harvest. … ” (Mt 16) Join the St. John Vianney Vocation Prayer Society (www.hartfordpriest.com).
Priests and religious to serve our Church in the future must come from our parishes and families today. And the future health of our world depends in great measure on the health of marriage and family life. May the Lord hear our prayers and bless our efforts for a new vocational “springtime” at the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity.