LORD, TO WHOM SHALL WE GO?

Rebuilding a Culture of Vocations

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So many of our priests, deacons, women and men religious—as well as married couples—are celebrating anniversaries these happy weeks. Congratulations!

Just last Sunday I celebrated my own fortieth anniversary of priestly ordination. The prayer of praise I offered Jesus for the “gift and mystery” of my priesthood at Mass that morning was as sincere as I could get.

You won’t be surprised that this anniversary prompted some uplifting sentiments about the priesthood. Can I share some of them?

One was the debt I have to my family. At the luncheon following my ordination on June 19, 1976, my dad proposed a toast.

“Tomorrow is Father’s Day,” dad began. “Today I rejoice in one of the greatest joys a father can have: to be able to call his son ‘Father.’”

The warmth of that toast shows the affirmation and encouragement my family gave me in my own long road to ordination. Mom and dad were hardly “uber Catholics,” but they took their faith seriously. While they never came near pressuring me towards the priesthood, I could see they were proud and I always knew they were supportive.

Not every boy, teenager, or college student gets that these days. I recall a number of years ago being approached by a young man in his early twenties about a vocation. I could see he had an interest.

“Give me your phone number so we can keep in touch,” I asked.

I was so saddened when he replied, “Oh, please don’t call me at home. Mom and dad wouldn’t like it at all if they knew I was thinking about priesthood.” That’s disappointing.

Nor can I forget my two grandmothers. Both were women of simple faith, grit, and common sense. They would take me to Mass, help me read the missal to follow the liturgy, and say the Rosary with me. They were delighted I told them from a young age that I might be a priest, and were with me along the way.

I guess this is all part of what I call a culture of vocations: a network of family, neighbors, parishioners, and friends who encourage a vocation.

So, a major influence on my priesthood was Holy Infant Parish in Ballwin, Missouri. The wonderful priests were so happy, so present, so evident in my life that, well, I wanted to be like them. The parishioners I came to know very well, and, once I entered the seminary, they rallied around and claimed me as their own. I was so pleased that I could be ordained in that parish church that had such an impact on me.

Thank God the parish had an excellent school, and mom and dad sacrificed so their five children could attend. Sisters of Mercy from Drogheda, Ireland, administered the school, and they gave me such a love for and knowledge of Jesus and His Church that I wanted to be a priest more than ever.

This is all a culture of vocations, which I’m afraid, is weakened today, and needs recharging.

A second sentiment would be a lasting reverence for the parish priesthood. In my forty years as a priest, only seven were spent full time in a parish, but they remain the happiest years of my ministry. To be close to people, to teach the kids, to baptize the babies and bury the grandparents, to hear confessions and visit the sick and housebound, to witness marriages and prepare people to enter the Church—this is the frontline of the Church!

Recently a priest asked me for an appointment. When he came in he was obviously nervous. He was almost apologetic when he asked me if, after five years in an important non-parochial assignment, he could return to full-time work in a parish.

“I miss it so much,” he confessed.

He was so relieved when I enthusiastically agreed to his return to a parish! I told him that, as far as I was concerned, “parish priest” was the highest call we priests could have.

Thus does my anniversary give me a chance to praise our own parish priests: their numbers shrink, the demands on them expand, the scrutiny and criticism they take increases, the inability to please everyone frustrates…but they persevere, and I love them for it.

(I’ve already got a parish in mind where I can retire in nine years...if my successor, and the Pope, let me!)

But, infinitely more than even family, a culture of vocations, my home parish, and my years as a parish priest, I praise Jesus, the one Eternal High Priest, who, for some strange reason known only in His Sacred Heart, chose this clumsy, imperfect sinner as one of His priests.

Only by His grace was I called—that’s what vocation means—and by His mercy I have been able to stay faithful.

We are all called to be in union with Jesus. He is the vine; we are the branches. I can tell you from four decades of watching that many lay faithful and religious sisters are much closer to Jesus than I, one of His priests, am.

But only a priest is so close to Him that he speaks and acts in His very Person: “This is my body; This is my blood; I absolve you from your sins, I baptize you...” As we priests say those sacred sacramental words, we “live now, no not us, but Christ lives in us.”

The Church’s tradition holds that a priest is so conformed to Jesus by the Sacrament of Holy Orders that he, the priest, acts and speaks in His—the Lord’s—very person as head, shepherd, and bridegroom of the Church.

That can be intimidating! That can be scary as we daily admit we are so broken and unworthy.

But, that is awesome! As Pope Saint John Paul II spoke to priests: “Up to the close of your lives, never lose that sense of awe and wonder you experienced when you first heard Jesus whisper, ‘Come!  Follow me!’ Love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of your lives!”

At a recent fiftieth wedding anniversary, I overheard the husband say to his wife, “You’re more beautiful today than you were a half-century ago, and I love you even more.”

That’s what I say to Jesus, His Church, and His priesthood!

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