The Heart of a [Future] Shepherd

“God has created [you] to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to [you] which He has not committed to another. [You] have [your] mission. [You] may never know it in this life, but [you] shall be told it in the next. [You are] a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

This quote from Blessed John Henry Newman gets to the heart of what I want to talk about today on this Good Shepherd Sunday and World Day of Prayer for Vocations. That absolutely unique task that God has entrusted to you is your vocation – your calling from the Lord that is tailored just to you by the God who knows you even better than you know yourself.

While of course there are many vocations – as many as there are sons and daughters of God, since God’s calling is uniquely fitted to each one of us, as Bl. John Henry explained – this Good Shepherd Sunday invites us to focus particularly on that vocation that consists in following the Lord in a more excellent way, by those who are willing to lay down their lives for the sheep, that is, vocations to the Sacred Priesthood.

Now, I have never heard of a man who decided to consider the Lord’s call to the priesthood because of a priest’s homily convinced him to do so, so I want to take another tack. I am going to speak today about how you, in your family, can create the sort of environment in which your sons will be willing to consider whether God might be calling them to lay down their lives as His priests. While that is my primary goal, I am also convinced that any of these ideas will make for a stronger family life and will help your children to follow whatever the Lord’s calling for them might be. I also recognize that many people here are not presently raising children. Maybe you will be in the future, or maybe you already have raised children. Either way, all of us have the opportunity to shape young people in one form or another based on the examples we set and the chances we have to interact with the young (whether as a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, mentor, or coach, etc.), and these ideas will help all of us to foster priestly vocations in our parish community.

The first step is to marvel at the wonder of God’s plan for your children. This is expressed well by St. John in today’s second reading: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” What a great wonder the Lord has entrusted to you! When you look at your children, you should see a child that belongs to God. He may currently frustrate you with his refusal to pick up his toys or by staying out too late with his friends, but the Lord has an incredible plan for him.

Marveling at the Lord’s plan for your children ought to lead to praying on a regular basis for them to know their vocations. Families should come together every day for shared prayer, and your children should hear you praying explicitly for their knowledge of their vocation. You can then begin to encourage them to pray for this as well – that they will know this incredible plan that has not yet been revealed.

The second step is to talk about how a priestly or religious vocation would be honored in your home. Your children should know that if they were to pursue a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, this would be actively supported and valued in your family. Do not just say that, though – show it to be true. Explicitly pray for priests and religious during your family prayer times. You can also adopt one of our Diocesan seminarians. Just pick a young man off the poster that is in all of the entrances to church – pray for him every day together as a family and send notes to encourage him. I remember receiving those while in seminary and they were such an encouragement.

I was thinking recently about another vocation that was highly honored by my family when I was a child, of another group of people willing to lay down their lives for others: soldiers. When I was a child, soldiers were treated with a reverence and respect that at times seemed to border on that accorded to a demi-god. I will never forget my cousin’s wedding, at which he appeared wearing, not a standard tux and bow tie, but that slick Marine uniform worn by the few and the proud. Hushed awe was the only possible response when he walked through the side door with the preacher.

When you see military recruiting ads, one point is consistently driven home: soldiers are not ordinary people, they are heroes. That is why I cringe every time that I hear an adult say to a child, “Priests are ordinary people too!” While it is of course true that priests are human men, not demi-gods, and that they do many of the ordinary things that men do, this strategy of emphasizing the ordinariness of the priesthood is not likely to bear fruit in vocations. Young people – especially young men – have a natural desire for heroism, for doing something great. They don’t want to be ordinary! We cannot expect them to be excited about something that doesn’t correspond to that deep, natural desire in their hearts for heroism. That’s what the Marine Corps offered my cousin and countless other young men who wanted to be a part of “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” And that is how we should regard the priesthood, and how we should speak about it to our sons, grandsons, students, and all the other young men of our parish, as something great and heroic, as a response to this impulse at the heart of every man to be a hero.

After honoring the priesthood, another critical step is sacrifice. In the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel, the priest is the one who is able to say, “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.” If we want the sons of our parish to consider a vocation to the priesthood, we must train them to lay down their own lives. This is where doing penance together as a family is so important, along with serving others as a family. I remember when I was young giving up time on Thanksgiving morning to deliver meals to those unable to leave their homes and with no one to visit them. Young people must be coached and nurtured into making the decision to serve others on their own. They will only do so if you teach them to love it.

Another sacrifice proven to produce priestly and religious vocations is being generously openness to life in marriage. This is one of the many reasons for which the Church has always maintained a preference for big families. Obviously, more children mean more potential priests and religious, but even more importantly, the sacrifices that are necessarily a part of this life form children in the practice of self-sacrifice and delayed gratification. Children that are a part of a big family necessarily learn that they are not the center of the world, and that others must be placed before themselves. Those who, for serious reasons, are not able to accept more children into their families can still live this principle by intentionally living below their own economic means. You might be able to afford that iPhone or Xbox for your child, but choosing not to buy it will help to form the same virtues in his heart that can prepare him to lay down his life one day for God and for others.

Most importantly of all, promoting priestly and religious vocations takes place in prayer. When I chose to go to a secular college away from home, my terrified mother committed to going to weekday Mass at least once each week in order to pray for my holiness. It worked! I made it through college not only still as a practicing Catholic – which in many cases is an enough of a miracle! – but with an even deeper relationship with the Lord and knowledge of the Faith. We need more hours of Eucharistic adoration, more rosaries, more attendees at daily Mass, more families consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, more people willing to plead with the Lord to open the hearts of our young men and women to consider His call to the priesthood and religious life. Involve your children in praying for an increase in priestly and religious vocations. Eventually, they will get the hint that they themselves might be the answer to these prayers. Inspire them with stories about the saints who left everything to follow Christ – who were heroes. Saints like St. Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a man condemned to the firing squad, or St. Isaac Jogues and companions, who endured torture by the Mohawk Indians (he even had his fingers gnawed off right in front of him!) rather than deny Christ.

We also need more prayer for the sanctification of the clergy – that our priests will be holy priests. Priestly examples of holiness and joy have the power to inspire our young men to consider laying down their own lives in a heroic sacrifice. I promise to do everything that I can as your pastor to be such an example of a man set apart for the Lord’s service, as a mediator between God and man, but to do that I and all other priests need the help of your prayers. My own vocation was inspired not by a young and energetic priest who impressed us with his jump shot and throwing arm, but rather by an elderly priest who wore his cassock every day and celebrated Holy Mass with an intensely reverent devotion to the Eucharist. Prayer and holiness will move a lot more hearts than any gimmick.

Lastly, you must guard the innocence of your children. One of the biggest threats to future priestly and religious vocations is currently being carried in the pockets of most of our teenagers. Unrestricted, 24/7 access to the internet pulls their thoughts and attentions away from the Lord and exposes them to corrupting moral influences. Children and teenagers need serious restrictions on their use of technology and parents need to be monitoring what their children are doing with their technological devices. This should be a subject of regular conversation between parents and their children.
Helping your children to strive for holiness also means taking them to confession on a regular basis (I would suggest at least monthly). When I see parents bringing their children frequently for confession it literally makes me want to jump up and down for joy. There are few greater gifts you can give them than forming this important habit of regularly confessing their sins and receiving the grace of a clear conscience. The openness to the Lord that confession creates is a necessary pre-condition to the discernment of a vocation.

Fostering priestly and religious vocations is a serious responsibility entrusted to our parish, and most particularly, entrusted to our young families. By marveling at the Lord’s plan for our young people, by honoring the priesthood and religious life as a heroic response to the Lord’s call, by living lives of self-sacrifice, by increasing our prayers for the sanctification of the clergy, and by guarding the innocence of our young people, we can form a culture at our parish in which young people will be ready to answer the Lord’s call to serve Him and His Church as a priest or religious. May the Lord grant it to be so.

The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
III Sunday after Easter, A.D. MMXVIII