The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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May 18, 2001 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

We need more than prayer alone

Raising up new vocations for church takes work on everyone's part

By Bishop Robert Banks

This column is two weeks late. I should have written about prayer for priestly vocations back then, rather than now. But better late than never.

Two Sundays ago (May 6) was designated by Pope John Paul II as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Catholics all over the world were encouraged to pray for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. At each Mass on that Sunday, petitions for an increase of vocations were inserted into the Prayer of the Faithful.

Our Diocese has been way ahead on that kind of prayer. At least three years ago, all parishes were asked to include a petition for the increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life into the Prayer of the Faithful at every Sunday Mass throughout the year. There might be one parish where it has not happened, since I received a letter from one concerned woman who suggested that I should order all our parishes to have such a prayer. Apparently she had spent some time in a Florida diocese this winter, where such prayer had been mandated.

A number of parishes in our Diocese have done a good deal more than inserting a petition about vocations into the Prayers of the Faithful. Some have a monthly holy hour specifically for that intention, and I know that priestly and religious vocations are made a top concern at those few places where we have Perpetual Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

Not by prayer alone

The insistence on prayer for vocations can be deceptive. It can make it seem that the secret of promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life is prayer alone - prayer that will inspire young men and women to think about those vocations.

Prayer for vocations is essential. Jesus told us to pray that laborers be sent into the vineyard, and that would certainly include priests and religious. But I would make two observations about prayer for vocations.

First, perhaps the prayer for vocations should focus not only on potential candidates for priesthood and religious life, but also on those who have traditionally encouraged such vocations. In other words, we should pray that Catholic families, and especially mothers, should be more encouraging of such vocations.

Back in the days when vocations to priesthood were more numerous, a worry commonly expressed was that some boys and young men would go to the seminary to please their mothers. In fact, there was concern that some mothers might put too much pressure on their sons to become priests.

Those days are over. And, as usual, one problem being solved only makes room for a new problem. Today's problem seems to be that parents, including mothers, will more often discourage a son from thinking of priesthood. That came to my mind a couple of weeks ago. One of our pastors was thinking of inviting a young man, a high school senior, to one of the Project Andrew dinners at my home. (These dinners are an occasion for young fellows who would make good candidates for priesthood to learn something about priesthood. There is no pressure and most of the high school seniors who come have already signed up to prepare in college for another kind of career.) The mother asked the priest not to even mention the subject to her son.

Wanting the best

The changed attitude among many mothers is understandable. They want the best for their sons and daughters. Fifty years ago, the best included priesthood and religious life along with other vocations and professions. In today's very secular culture, and after all that has happened to priesthood and religious life, such vocations are naturally less attractive and definitely more risky. Besides, you do not have to be a priest or member of a religious community in order to be a harvester in the Lord's vineyard. So a mother has to have a great deal of faith before she can enthusiastically encourage her son or daughter to take on a risky life that is focused solely on the Lord and service to his Church.

Another group that traditionally encouraged likely candidates to think of priesthood or religious life was the teachers in our Catholic schools and parish religious education programs. Since many of those teachers were themselves members of religious communities, they could speak from experience and with enthusiasm. And parents were open to their encouraging children to think of priesthood and religious life. Almost all the teachers in our educational programs now are married lay persons who have another kind of experience and who do not have the implicit permission of parents to encourage the children to think of priesthood and religious life.

Our prayer for vocations, therefore, has to be a prayer that parents be more open and trusting to the possibility that priesthood and religious life can be wonderful vocations for their children. Vocation prayer also has to include those involved in our educational programs, praying that they be sure to present the possibility of religious vocations and to invite priests, sisters and brothers to talk about celibate life in the service of the Lord.

Every vocation is religious

Lest I be misunderstood, I recognize that every vocation is by definition a religious vocation. Every person who sees their way of life - married or single, in business or in the trades or in the professions - as a response to God's call is living a religious vocation. Religious vocation also obviously includes the many other persons who are deeply involved in the ministry of the Church, whether as ordained deacons or baptized lay persons.

That brings me to the second observation I would make about prayer for vocations. Prayer is not enough. All of us have to hold up and enthusiastically support in faith those vocations by which God calls some to imitate Jesus more closely in a way of life and service that includes celibacy and even poverty and obedience. To embrace such a vocation - a vocation that surrenders the possibility of married love and children, that minimizes career advancement, that challenges the secularism of modern culture - is a courageous act of faith. To respect, support and encourage such vocations is also today a tremendous act of faith.

For all those who feel left out because I focused so much on vocations to priesthood and religious life rather than their particular vocation, please notice that I also said nothing about the vocation to the office of bishop.

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