Much has been written about the “gift and mystery” of the priesthood. Gift and mystery: those are the words that Pope St. John Paul II used as he reflected upon his 50th anniversary of priesthood. His vocation was born in the midst of frightful events taking place in the world and, more specifically, in his homeland of Poland. The call of Jesus in the mind and heart of Karol Wojtyla was clear and strong; it filled his heart with joy and, in the darkest hours of his life, it inspired the heroism of his priesthood that led thousands of souls to Christ — and does so to this day.
On the feast of St. Francis, Oct. 4, 2011, His Eminence Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, then prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, addressed the priests of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The beginning of his remarks, and the life of Pope St. John Paul the Great, can open for us some resolute vistas to consider the beauty of that “call” from Jesus in the hearts of men today. His Eminence noted:
A few decades ago, American writer Dorothy Thompson published in a magazine article the results of careful research on the ill-famed concentration camp of Dachau.A key question addressed to the survivors was the following: “In the midst of the Dachau hell, who remained for the longest time in a balanced condition? Who kept his sense of identity for the longest time?” The answer in unison was always the same: “the Catholic priests.” Yes, the Catholic priests! They were able to keep their balance in the midst of so much madness, because they were conscious of their vocation. They had their hierarchy of values. Their dedication to their ideal was total. They were conscious of their specific mission and of the profound reasons that sustained it.
In the midst of the earthly hell, they gave their testimony: that of Jesus Christ!
We live in an unstable world. There is instability in the family, in the world of work, in the various social and professional associations, in schools and in institutions. The priest must be, however, constitutionally a model of stability and maturity, of full dedication to his apostolate.This message and these sorts of thoughts continue to echo in the noble hearts of men who hear the call of Jesus Christ and respond affirmatively to that call in the priesthood. While, at its core, the priesthood will never be a “glamorous” life, it will, if lived properly, always be heroic.
Each year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee for Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations commissions a report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) considering the “graduating” class of ordinands for the current year. This year, 2017, the first question still remains numerical; and yes, the number is up from last year. In the United States, 590 priests were ordained this year, up five from last year. That being said, it is important to note that numbers are piffle in the plan of men considering the priesthood and seriously discerning God’s call.
Part of the grist of the priestly vocation and the real heavy-lifting of discernment centers on the areas of Eucharistic adoration, the daily recitation of the Rosary and regular participation at the holy Mass. I would say that these basic elements of Catholic life would laudably be encouraged by Pope St. John Paul II, St. John Vianney, St. Maximilian Kolbe and all the other valiant, saintly and heroic priests we know, and many we don’t. The building of the interior life is at the center of discerning a priestly vocation in our society today.
A man need not find his relevance as a priest by performing works of social service/ justice as much as he may find his relationship with Jesus Christ the means by which he influences the world. It is as we noted above:
Catholic priests! They were able to keep their balance in the midst of so much madness, because they were conscious of their vocation. They had their hierarchy of values. Their dedication to their ideal was total. They were conscious of their specific mission and of the profound reasons that sustained it.
In conversations with other bishops and with many rectors and vocation directors (including our own Father Wierzba), the men of our age studying to be priests are less ideologues than they are pragmatic witnesses of the NEED for Jesus Christ in our world.
The time I spend with our seminarians, whom I affectionately call my “embryonic priests,” is always a time filled with an encouragement for the future of our diocese and certainly for the Church. It is an encouragement that I see in many young priests, recently ordained for our diocese and for many others. I am reminded of the special love that Jesus has for those whom He calls to be priests, and the special responsibilities and challenges that go with the call.
Many people too often think in terms of “giving something up” when they think of priesthood. There are, of course, sacrifices to make, and perhaps the call to celibacy is one of the most challenging. But a man who has a sense of Christ’s call can take heart from Christ’s own words: “I tell you the truth, no-one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the Gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields — and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30).
While we may give thanks that the quantity of men choosing to respond to God’s call for priesthood may be rising, I believe the quality of the men responding is an indication of what we may expect in the future church — and it is clearly good. The present age of relativistic secularism is taking its toll on society. The work for the future church is being defined by the present age. Future priests are not going to be defined by what they do. No, the future will be determined by the character and quality of the priests we need; and, thanks be to God, they are on their way! Someone you know may have what it takes to be a priest of Jesus Christ — perhaps they only need to be invited by you.