I enjoy mowing the grass in the evening. For me, pushing the lawnmower over the tall grass and occasionally looking back to see that the blades have left a seemingly smooth surface is a relaxing pastime.
Twice this spring, I yanked the starter cord on the mower only to hear nothing. My first thought was, “Which of my community members put the mower away with an empty tank of gas?”
The first time it happened, I realized that I had forgotten to push the primer bulb the required number of times. An easy mistake the first time out after the long winter hiatus. The second time, I remembered to push the primer bulb but still got nothing. As I thought about which of my brothers was to blame for leaving the empty gas tank, I recalled that I last used the mower.
At a recent dinner with a family that I have known for a few years, the table conversation passed through the regular subjects like weather, sports and news. The conversation drifted into the summer plans for the children: library programs, summer camps and planned trips. It was then that I casually asked each of the children what they wanted to be when they grew up.
To my surprise, none of the five children included priest, brother or sister in their list of dreams. When I suggested that one of the three daughters might be called to be a nun some day, the mother choked as she instinctively blurted out “NO!” with the last bite of salad still in her mouth. She immediately tried to explain herself saying, “Well I don’t want them to be lonely.” As she said it, she knew it still didn’t sound right.
At a different home with another family, I asked the two high school-aged boys, “Which of you is thinking about becoming a priest?” Almost simultaneously, their expression changed to shock as they immediately pointed at the other and said “him.”
About a year ago, I contacted about 50 Catholic high schools, universities and parish youth groups that had a connection to the Glenmary Volunteer Program. I offered to send a Glenmary priest so he could celebrate Mass with them and talk with the young men and women about mission vocations. Not one of them accepted my offer.
A couple of weeks ago, I contacted another parish not too far from Glenmary’s headquarters and explained to them that we had a Glenmary seminarian working with us in the vocation office for the summer. If they would like, we could schedule a time that he could meet with their youth group to talk about seminary life and his vocational call. The pastor’s response was, “Well, we will have to think about it as we have never done that before.”
In the last 50 years, the number of priests, brothers and sisters in the United States has decreased tremendously. Over 20,000 fewer priests are serving in the United States than there were 50 years ago. There are well over 100,000 fewer religious sisters in the U.S. during that same time period. Historically, there were always fewer religious brothers than priests or sisters, but there are 8,000 fewer brothers than there were 50 years ago.
I know of many Catholic schools that previously had religious working in the school. They do not have any today. I know of parishes that once had their own parish priest that are now clustered with two other parishes, and the priest has to divide his time between them. Fewer or no religious in our parishes and schools means less opportunity for the religious to meet and encourage the youth to discern their call. If they do not see a priest, brother or sister modeling their role, where will they learn?
I have listened to people despair and complain about parish closings or clusterings in their dioceses. But not very often do I hear a parent tell me that they are praying for a vocation to religious life among their children.
Glenmary missioners often say, “Our mission parishes are so small; we cannot possibly find vocations in them.” Or “We don’t have any young single men in our mission parish.”
But even in large parishes, in different dioceses, I think we are seeing the failings of not promoting vocations among our youth. For example, I know of one parish in my home diocese that is over 50 years old and has never sent a man to the seminary. It is a parish that has over 600 families and a grade school and has had over 30 diocesan priests serve there since it was founded. Yet, it has not produced a priest of its own.
According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s (CARA) annual survey, 82 percent of the 2017 class of men ordained to the priesthood were encouraged by about four people in their lives, including parish priests, friends or other parishioners.
Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, CSsR, of Newark said, “A staggering number of the 2017 ordination class report to have been encouraged by others to consider a priestly vocation. That statistic should motivate all the faithful to be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit, who may wish to use them to extend the invitation to ordained ministry.”
I wonder if the parents of Mary, Mother of Jesus, encouraged her to be open to God’s calling when it came. Did they pray with her and tell her that she had gifts to share with the greater community? I wonder if Mary’s cousins or friends ever said to her something like, “We are praying for you as you discern where God is calling you.” Might their prayers and encouragement have been a part of Mary’s readily saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word?”
I wonder if St. Peter had been discerning his call even before he met Jesus. Did he know in his heart that he was being called to serve God somehow or in some way before that day on the seashore when he heard Jesus say to him “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men?” Maybe Peter’s parents had prayed with him throughout his life a special vocation prayer to be open to where God was calling him. Maybe one of his teachers had told him, you might be called to do something more than fish.
In the most recent issue of the Glenmary Challenge Magazine, Fr. Chet Artysiewicz, Glenmary’s president, reminds his readers of the need for us to invite young people to discern their vocation. All of the Catholic faithful are needed more than ever to encourage young men and women to be open to their call. Start at home and then pray to recognize the gifts of the youth in your parish.
Encourage them, pray for them and pray with them. Help Glenmary by priming the pump a little. It is easier for this vocation director to talk with a young man who can say, yes my mom or my teacher or my friend actually told me that I might make a good priest or brother rather than yanking that vocation cord on a cold start and getting the shocked look of silence asking, “Who me?”