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Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin
January 11, 2002 Issue

Called in ordinary life experiences

We come to know Jesus first through daily life

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

By Bishop Robert Banks

One of my favorite vocation stories came up in the Mass readings this past week. John the Baptist is talking to a couple of his disciples when Jesus walks by. John says, "There is the Lamb of God." So the two disciples take off after Jesus to find out more about him.

When Jesus notices that they are following him, he turns around and says, "What are you looking for?"

They must have been caught off guard by the question because they give a kind of strange answer, "Where are you staying?" And Jesus says, "Come and see."

The result is that they spend the day with Jesus. It must have been quite a day, because this is one of the few times that any Gospel singles out the exact time of day. "So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent the rest of the day with him. It was about four in the afternoon."

One of the disciples was so impressed that he immediately told his brother, "We have found the Messiah."

The moment of vocation

The story is one of my favorites for two reasons. First, I like the way the Gospel writer notes that the moment of vocation is nailed down to a particular hour. And it is true that, for the ordinary person who has been thinking about a priestly or religious vocation, the moment of actual decision to do something about it is very special.

Second, I preached on this Gospel story back when I was a seminary rector. After the Mass, one of the priest professors came up to me in the sacristy and said I had reminded him of the day he had decided to become a priest. He was an officer in the Navy, standing on the deck of a destroyer just off the coast of Japan. He had been thinking of priesthood for some time, but finally decided that it was what he was going to do as soon as he got out of the Navy. He said, "It happened at four in the afternoon."

I do not remember the exact hour when I made the decision about priesthood, but I still remember going to the rectory and telling the pastor I wanted to enter the seminary.

There is a common element in my vocation story, that of the seminary faculty member and that long-ago disciple of John the Baptist. In each case the decision came only after each of us had spent some time in Jesus' company. For John's disciple, it was face to face with Jesus. For my faculty friend and me, it was through the Church. We came to know Jesus through our family life, our parish life, our sacramental life -- and all of that is part of the Church.

Nowadays there is a great deal of talk and concern about the shortage of vocations, especially priestly vocations. As parishioners face the linking, merging and even closing of their parishes, they ask why there aren't more vocations to priesthood. And, if young men are not stepping up to become priests, why doesn't the Church ordain married men or let priests marry? These are all reasonable concerns and reasonable questions.

The persons who put these questions to me directly are almost always good, faithful Catholics. I usually try to explain that, while celibacy can make it more difficult for a man to think about priesthood, the problem of too few clergy is affecting all mainline churches, even those who have no requirement of celibacy.

Not filling job slots

But the shortage of priests to staff our parishes is distorting our ideas about priestly and religious vocations. We are tending to think of vocations in terms of filling job slots. Why can't we make the job of priest or sister more attractive? Some suggest raising the salary. Others say, "Let them marry." Still others suggest advertising more, using television or billboards.

Priestly and religious vocations come from spending time with Jesus. That happens when persons come to know Jesus through their family life, their parish life, their sacramental life, their prayer life and their experience of life.

If all goes well, they come to find in Jesus what that early disciple of John found when Jesus invited him to "Come and see."

That disciple found a Jesus who, in so many ways, seemed free to be about God's work. Jesus owned no home or farm, had no property. He had no wife or children who would necessarily be a major part of his life.

That disciple was impressed that Jesus seemed to have such a close and intimate relationship with God. God was not some far-off, to-be-feared deity. God was like a member of the family, a father.

Not uptight or rigid

And Jesus was someone that it was easy to be with. He was not uptight and rigid. He was not like John the Baptist, limiting his diet to locusts and wild honey. Jesus seemed to enjoy having a meal with friends.

Most of all, it was exciting to be around this young man from the hill country who was intent on changing the whole world. No wonder the disciple's first words were, "He is the Messiah."

It was easy for the disciple to leave everything and follow someone like that.

There has to be a similar experience for someone to become a priest or sister. It begins somewhere through the Church, is strengthened in the seminary or novitiate, and -- please God -- continues for life.

Our concern for vocations then must first be a concern about our Church life. Do we in our Church of Green Bay provide the experience in our parishes, schools, centers and apostolates where our young people can come to know and experience Jesus? Most of all, do our families provide the kind of life where sons and daughters come to know and experience Jesus?

A vibrant Church life will invite all of our young people to lives of holiness. Most will be called to the rich holiness of married life and to living the Gospel in the world of work. But some will experience the call to the holiness found in priesthood or religious life.

The clergy shortage is basically a call to the total renewal of our life as Church.


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