These were the words of the Papal Nuncio in 1853 to Bishop John Martin Henni – the first bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Bishop Henni was showing the papal envoy the proposed site for a new seminary, which would train priests to serve the growing number of Catholic immigrants in Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin. As he toured the grounds that would soon be home to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, legend has it that the envoy, overcome by the site’s beauty, exclaimed: “Make this place holy!”
I am beginning my sixth year as vocation director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. One of the most essential lessons that I have learned by working with men and women in discernment is that our vocation naturally flows from a pursuit of holiness. By allowing the Lord to make our homes holy, our schools holy, our places of work holy, our relationships holy, our bodies holy, our churches holy, and our hearts holy, we are able to encounter His will for our lives. The primary way that I have seen the Lord cultivate holiness in the lives of our young people, and thus reveal their vocation, is through silence. Cardinal Robert Sarah in his recent book, “The Power of Silence,” states, “The soul must listen to the voice of silence. It must agree to be united with silence so as to allow God to enter into it. How do we let God enter into us? That is the question and the true grace of silence.”
We are not recruiting vocations, we are not marketing the priesthood, and we are not trying to convince an individual to enter the seminary. These tactics are shallow and secular. The goal of our vocation efforts this National Vocation Awareness Week, and each day that follows, is to help our young people to enter into silence so that God can speak to their heart. Finding God through silence, in the depths of one’s soul, is a profound discovery – an encounter that changes everything. “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great,” says Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. We must encourage and help our young people to find places of silence, areas of retreat – a refuge from the busyness of life. Here, they can rest in the arms of the Father so that in peace Jesus can gaze into their eyes and say, “Come and follow me.”
Growing up, my home parish, St. Bruno in Dousman, was left unlocked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Without the opportunity to spend time late at night or early in the morning before the Blessed Sacrament in my parish church, I’m not sure if I would have found the necessary room for silence that was vitally important as I prayed through the possibility of the priesthood. This is likely why those dioceses in our country that have higher numbers of perpetual adoration chapels – places of grace-filled silence – often have higher numbers of vocations.
Jesus’ invitation is lasting, true, and real. It is the only one that will encourage men and women to counter-culturally leave good paying jobs, master’s degree programs, and their own personal expectations, to embrace a celibate life of simplicity and obedience. And it can only be heard and received in silence. Millennials exploring holy orders, religious/consecrated life, marriage – vocations that are very misunderstood today – need an environment to “let God enter in” and to receive the necessary grace to make a commitment. This environment can be fostered in our parish churches, in our homes and in our schools.
So, how will we make these places holy? There is only one way: “To let God enter into us.” And that is the true grace of silence.