Vocations are a distinct “call” by God through which we are able to fulfill his plan. He has made us in his image and likeness. Therefore, we are all called to holiness. Our destiny is to live with him in eternity. Vatican II declared there is a universal call to holiness in the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Lumen Gentium (the Light of Nations) from Vatican II, stated:” Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful. Whatever their condition or state – though each in his own way – are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect.” (CC 825) Vocation is an invitation from God which demands our response.
I am so grateful to my parents for their vocation to the sacrament of marriage. Without that commitment to love, my life would have certainly been altered. The environment to hear God’s word would have been limited to say the least. I mention my parent’s vocation to marriage because many merely think that vocations are the exclusive prerogative of those committed to priesthood, clergy or religious life.
I usually refrain from speaking about my own vocational call because I would not want to leave the impression that my vocational call is the way every call should be experienced. I spent more than 25 years in seminary work. I can testify that vocational calls are as diverse and unique as the variety of individuals that we encounter throughout our lives.
If we examine Sacred Scripture, one can see that the Lord’s call was presented and experienced in a variety of ways. Matthew was a tax collector called from his table. Peter and Andrew were fishermen and challenged to follow him. Paul (Saul), who was persecuting the Church, fell to the ground surrounded by a bright light. The common denominator was although different, they were all invitations from the Lord who met them where they lived and asked for their response.
During the many years I served in the seminary, I encountered a variety of unique stories of the Lord invading lives and offering a compelling invitation. Some quickly responded and took up the cross while others were stubborn yet doggedly pursued by the Lord. In my own class, there were men who were dedicated to other professions, and they were very successful. One member of my class was planning marriage but could not deny the nagging vocational call and eventually canceled his wedding plans and entered the seminary. Another former student shared with me that he had heard God’s voice but muffled it because priesthood was not in his plans for his own personal success. He told me that God used his friends and family to consistently ask about his intentions toward the priesthood. They weren’t pushing him, but they all saw something in his life that seemed to be directed toward the priesthood. As much as he tried, he could not deny their queries. At that point, he surrendered and entered the seminary. There is a poem called the “Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson. It presents the relentlessness of God. There are some who experience the relentlessness, even though they try to run from it.
My own vocational experience was a sense of the desire to be a priest from as early as I can remember (3 or 4 years of age). I have never wanted to be anything but a priest. Of course, my understanding of the priesthood has matured. In first grade, I thought you become an altar boy and then, after a few years, you are ordained a priest. My 12 years of studies and formation in the seminary cured me of that childish notion.
We are blessed in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at this time of our history. There is a number of highly qualified men who are discerning the priesthood. In fact, there are more young men studying for the priesthood today then there has been in decades. Many bishops have asked me what is the secret. I don’t believe it’s a secret. It begins with the intentional commitment of the faithful to the Church and a willingness to be intentionally supportive of vocations.
When I arrived in the archdiocese, I stated that my greatest surprise was the depth of the faith that was practiced. I would attend gatherings and I believe, because of the work of past vocational directors, the need for vocations was uppermost in the prayer life of the community. There was a value to the vocation to the priesthood and religious life that I had not experienced elsewhere. I would go to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and celebrate Mass with the mothers of priests. They gathered to pray for their sons. One can never deny the importance of family and the practice of our faith in the openness to the call. Everyone is not destined to be a priest, but we are all challenged to live out God’s plan for us.
In the last few years, a house of discernment was created at St. Robert in Shorewood to challenge men who are thinking of priesthood but still living and working in the secular world. They live together, pray and listen, as priests share their insights of God’s call in their lives. The invitation of our priests and seminarians to others in the world reminds me of Christ response to St. Andrew when he asked the Lord, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responded: “Come and see.” We can never discount the importance of the invitation. It is our responsibility to present the possibility of priesthood to those who we see possessing the characteristics of a priest. Remember, our task is to invite and the Holy Spirit will take it from there.
The recent seminary dinner held at the Wisconsin Center hosted more than 1,500 individuals. It demonstrated the support for the seminary and the tremendous affection for the priests of the archdiocese. Although we certainly celebrate and are very proud of the young men entering the seminary, it is because of the historical service of our priests in the archdiocese throughout the years that has endeared the priesthood to the people and families that they have served.
There is no secret to vocational success. Intentional prayer for vocations creates an environment which allows the voice of God to be heard through people of faith. Support for our seminarians and priests acts as an encouragement for their perseverance and offers us hope for the future Church. Faithfulness in our commitment to the teachings of the Church witnesses to the young and inspires them.
Trusting in God’s prophetic word from Jeremiah 3:15, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart,” we give him thanks for the priesthood he has shared so generously with us through His Son Jesus Christ.