One of the great surprises I encountered when I was named the 11th Archbishop of Milwaukee was the vocation-rich environment of the archdiocese. It was true 12 years ago and remains true today. This does not happen overnight, but it is through years of leadership, both priestly and lay, that cultivates respect and support for Christ and his Church, especially during the clergy abuse scandal and decline in church attendance.
The invitation to consider a vocation comes in many forms and in many ways. But it is obvious that for many the roots of the invitation come from the family. It is in the family where religion is introduced, where a healthy respect for the Church is supported and where a life of prayer is incorporated. A husband and wife pledge to live their lives committed to permanence, faithfulness and their openness to children and to raise them according to the laws of Christ and his Church. In the last few decades, there has been a diminishment of the authority of the Church in the lives of individuals. In my time as a priest, I have even heard it said that when someone remarked that their child would make a good priest. The parent responded by saying, “No, I want him to make something of himself.” I wonder if they ever thought of the fact they were making that statement in front of me while I was wearing a collar. Understanding that mentality, I was pleasantly surprised when, early in my episcopate here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I journeyed to Sheboygan for a parish event, and I was confronted by a mother with her three little sons standing in front of her. She said to me, “Archbishop, I hope one of these will be yours someday.” This was a mother who appreciated the role of the priest and the value of his service to Christ and his Church.
The recent Saint Francis de Sales Seminary Dinner was a testimony to the respect and support that our Archdiocese of Milwaukee has for those discerning a vocation. More than 2,000 individuals attended — it was the hottest ticket in town. At the dinner, people shared their stories with me of their love for the Church, their pride in the young men in the seminary and the enthusiasm they possessed for our young priests who serve their parishes.
There is something special that is happening at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary. I believe the Holy Spirit has given us this moment. It is now our obligation to embrace it. I told the community present that the very first seminary dinner was held in the seminary cafeteria and there was room enough for an additional 50 people. Now, 15 years later, the Wisconsin Center is filled. I jokingly stated that our next venue will be Fiserv Forum. The dinner was sold out four weeks before the date. The 83 young men who presented themselves on the stage was a sight that few archdioceses or dioceses in the country can claim.
In my time as archbishop, I have ordained 64 men for the priesthood and, God willing, I will ordain an additional nine in May. But these blessings come because faith is supported and vocations are highly valued. A vocation begins with listening to God’s call. Vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare,” meaning to call; this call is often nurtured in the family.
In my own vocation story, my family supported my decision to be a priest. They emphasized that I needed to listen to God’s invitation. They never abandoned me and always indicated that it was my choice to respond to God’s call. Although they were proud of my decision to enter the seminary, I never felt pressured. A priest must prepare to receive his people as family and that he will be serving them as “Father.” In my years as a seminary professor, I often told the young men who were discerning the priesthood that in my mind a successful priest would be one who could envision himself as a good husband and father.
It takes the effort of everyone to continue this vocational surge, which goes against the national trend. Therefore, we must realize that we are all vocational recruiters. There is no doubt in my mind that prayer must form the basis for a vocational environment. Our Lord himself tells us in Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few, so ask the master to send out laborers for his harvest.” We can accomplish much by supporting our local parishes and participating with our priests as they challenge us to live our faith. But we must also seek opportunities and not hesitate to suggest to young men that they might consider offering their lives for the sake of Christ and his Church.
A young priest becomes a living vocation poster, demonstrating a clear indication that a commitment to Christ makes a difference in the world and offers a way to live a life of holiness in a world filled with destructive ideologies and selfishness. If you are aware of a young man who might consider the priesthood, please contact our vocation director, Fr. John LoCoco, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 414-747-6425.
I have also launched an initiative to promote vocations for women religious. I have asked Fr. John Burns to devote his efforts seeking women to serve the Church through a commitment to religious life. In my own vocation story, next to my family, the most important support I received in pursuit of priesthood was from the religious sisters of my parish. Their self-sacrificing lives were an example of living a life of holiness in the world. They influenced the community and the families of the parish through their commitment to the evangelical counsels. My father was not a joiner. I would characterize him as an ethical Catholic who went faithfully to Mass on Sundays and religiously observed meatless Fridays. However, no matter how tired he might have been, he would never hesitate to offer his assistance to the sisters who would be asking for his help. The sisters represent what I believe is the necessary feminine component that completes the fullness of family. An increase in the religious commitment of women would make us strong and continue to ensure a vocational environment for our Church well into the future.
I love our Church and thank God for the privilege of being his priest. He has given me a family that spans the globe, examples of holiness to inspire me and a vision to share with others of our everlasting life to come through the promise of Jesus. As J.B. Henri Lacordaire, O.P., stated: “My God, what a life and it is yours, O priest of Jesus Christ.”