This Sunday in the Church universal we celebrate the annual World Day of Prayer for Vocations. The reason we pray and focus our attention on this aspect of the life of the Church is simple: we are in need of religious vocations, and especially vocations to the priesthood. Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for this weekend, put it this way:
The mission of the priest in the Church is irreplaceable. Therefore, even if in some regions there is a scarcity of clergy, it should never be doubted that Christ continues to raise up men who . . . dedicate themselves completely to the celebration of the sacred mysteries, to the preaching of the gospel and to pastoral ministry.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise us that Pope Benedict is interested in vocations, or that this homily is about vocations. But what does come as a surprise, I think, is that thousands of Americans—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—are also interested in vocations to the priesthood.
I am referring, of course, to the “reality TV” series that recently aired on A&E called “God or the Girl.” You may have seen this program that follows four young men over the course of several months, as they must decide whether or not to enter a celibate life as a seminarian or remain in the world where they can date and continue their lives as single Catholic men. Again, as the title of the show suggests, they must make a choice: between either God or the girl.
Now, I have to admit, when I first heard about this show I was more than a bit skeptical. I could picture the cameras rolling as these four young men are being dropped off on an island with Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton! But having talked to people who have seen the show, and after reading much about “God or the Girl,” the overall message that comes through is really quite encouraging. It seems that even in the midst of our secular culture, people are generally interested—and even impressed—with the decision that many young men make to enter the seminary and embrace a call to celibate priesthood.
But with all that said, I still think there is something missing when it comes to that decision: “God or the Girl.” To say that a seminarian or a priest makes a choice not date or not to marry is really only part of the picture. Priesthood, like any vocation, is not a choice against something. It is ultimately a choice for something (or, to be more specific, a choice for someone).
Many times as a priest I am able to meet with young couples who are preparing for the sacrament of marriage. Whenever they talk about their life together, they never say:
“Father, we are so excited about our upcoming wedding, and about celebrating our decision to not see other people.”
No, they never say that! They say:
“I am looking forward to this wedding and my marriage to this person; I want to spend my life and give my love to this man or this woman.”
Marriage is not a choice against bachelorhood or a rejection of the single life. It is a choice for another; a choice for the beloved . . . and so is priesthood.
We need look no further than Jesus Christ, the great High Priest Himself, in the Gospel this morning, to see that love expressed in the most basic and compelling of terms.
Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd, who “lays down his life for the sheep.” At the very heart of Jesus’ identity and ministry, at the very core of who He is, we find this total gift of self, a gift of His very life for the sheep. Jesus goes to the cross out of love for His Bride, the Church.
In his document on the formation of priests, Pope John Paul II reflects on this very gift of self that Christ makes as the Good Shepherd. He says,
Christ’s gift of himself to his Church, the fruit of his love, is described in terms of that unique gift of self made by the bridegroom to the bride . . .Jesus is the true bridegroom who offers to the Church the wine of salvation (John 2:11).
—Pastores Dabo Vobis, #22.
He goes on to describe how the priest is called to share in that same spousal relationship, to make that same gift of self for love of the Church. So it’s not merely a choice between God or the girl. At its deepest level, the choice to follow Christ in the Catholic priesthood is a decision for God and the Bride, not God or the girl.
Now all of that sounds very theological and abstract. But it’s really not. In fact, in my own life, it is something that is very personal. For several years I struggled with the decision of whether or not to enter the seminary. If only I had waited a little longer, perhaps I, too, could have been on A&E’s reality TV show!
But my biggest challenge was trying to make that decision to give up the possibility of a rewarding married life, with a wife, children and all the things that most young men my age were considering.
The one thing that I could not see at the time, was that God was calling me to love every bit as much as any husband in the Church today, but that He was calling me to love in a very different way; He was calling me to share in that same love that Christ has for His Bride the Church. That reality, that truth, changed things for me. I began to look at the Church, the priesthood, and God’s call in my life in an entirely new way.
That is really what we pray for today, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations: that all those who God is calling to love completely, and to give themselves fully to Christ in love for His bride the Church, may be able to hear that call and see that love in a whole new light.
Let us join with the Church throughout the world this day, in asking God for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. And may all those called to serve God as priests and religious today, reflect that love that Christ, the Good Shepherd, has for His Bride, the Church.