One of the greatest challenges we face in the Church today is what many have referred to as a vocations crisis. Last November, Pope John Paul II alluded to this crisis, saying
No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the Church in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored or put off.
On the more local level, you may have noticed in this week’s Providence Visitor that 6 faithful and hardworking priests of our diocese will be retiring this summer. Thankfully we will be celebrating the ordination of one young man to the priesthood in a few weeks, but it is quite clear that the number of priests retiring far exceeds the number of men being ordained.
The numbers can be discouraging. How are we to understand this current vocations crisis that we are in the midst of? What is to be our response to such a tremendous challenge in our Church? There are no easy answers to this situation, but one thing is certain: whatever the solution, it can only be one that is rooted in Christ and His vision for the Church.
In the Gospel this morning, St. Matthew describes a vast crowd of people who are following Jesus, and he says they were “troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.” The original meaning of those words is so strong that it conveys almost a sense of hopelessness. One commentator says that they are words that describe “someone who is utterly wearied by a journey which seems to know no end” (Barclay).
They were weary, and the religious leaders of their time had done nothing to alleviate their suffering. In fact, they had made it worse. This is the scene which Jesus is watching unfold before Him.
St. Matthew tells us “Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them.” The word Matthew uses is the strongest word for pity in the Greek language. It means that Jesus was physically affected by what He saw. It made Him sick! And of all the ways He could have responded—anger, frustration, cynicism—instead he simply turns to the disciples and says:
The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.
And then He calls before Him the twelve apostles and sends them forth. Jesus saw the needs around Him. He was a realist; he understood the situation. His response is to pray to “the master of the harvest” to send out workers to be His instruments in this world. God has a plan to meet the needs of His people, and from the beginning the priesthood has been a part of that plan.
But do we truly believe that the priesthood has any relevance in meeting the needs of the world today? As we look around us and see people who are “troubled and abandoned,” much like Jesus saw in His own day, do we dare to think that the priesthood can offer some alleviation to those who are suffering and in need? Do we believe that the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, and the preaching of the Gospel message are able to bring consolation and strength to those in need?
In the late 18th century, the nation of France underwent one of the bloodiest revolutions the world had ever seen. It left in its wake a country devastated and a Church disintegrated and dispersed.
The attempt to abolish religion from public life had failed miserably, and now the people were suffering the consequences. In the midst of this crisis, a young man named John Vianney felt God calling him to the priesthood.
Despite his reputation for great sanctity, no bishop wanted him. He was what we would refer to today as “academically challenged,” and when one bishop finally did accept him, he assigned Vianney to a small parish in the obscure village of Ars, where it was hoped that he wouldn’t do too much damage!
St. John Vianney looked around him and saw much what Jesus saw in the Gospel today: people who were troubled and abandoned, and who no longer practiced their faith. He would often pray: “Lord, I am willing to suffer anything at all, only convert my people. That is all I ask.”
Many years went by, and eventually things did begin to change. It was slow at first, but eventually people began to come back to Church. Before long, the entire village was converted, and many became convinced that their parish priest was a saint.
At that time the most remarkable thing began to happen. People from all over France started to make pilgrimages to that small village. Thousands of people came there to attend Mass and to have their confession heard by this simple and unimpressive priest. Not only Ars, but all of France was being converted. There is a story that one day the devil himself confronted John Vianney and shouted at him through a possessed person:
Curse you John Vianney! If there were three of you,
I would not be able to set foot in all of France.
That was 150 years ago. Today, in our own country, we thankfully do not face the same challenges that France was up against. Nonetheless, we have our own problems, our culture has more than its share of people who are “troubled and abandoned.” And in the midst of all these challenges, our Church is facing a crisis of vocations.
Might we all more fervently pray to the “Master of the harvest” to send out more laborers. It would be wonderful if we had 30 more vocations to the priesthood in our diocese in the coming year. But if we only had three, it could very well be enough for God to accomplish the work that He desires in our Church, and in the world around us.