4th Sunday of Easter (Fr. Francis)
Since 1963, the Church Universal has used this Good Shepherd Sunday to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest.” But prayer for priestly and religious vocations takes place in a context — both social and ecclesial — as does the response to such calls. What is the contemporary context in which we are asking the Lord to open the hearts and minds of our youth to hear His summons? What can or ought we do to enable His voice to be better heard?
One observer wrote about what he called “the utter contempt into which Catholicism has fallen” in this land. That analysis actually came from the pen of the great Cardinal Newman over a century ago, on the very brink of the Oxford Movement’s major successes. I cite him to provide some type of historical framework for our own analysis and also by way of recalling that, not infrequently, the adage is correct: It is always darkest before the dawn. But hope should not be confused with presumption, nor should a Christian optimist lapse into the role of a Pollyanna. So, let us survey the landscape, using the style of a Caravaggio — chiaroscuro — looking at the total picture with its lights and shadows.
What is the image of priesthood and religious life to those outside the Church? The average American knows of priests who are sources of scandal, women religious who are radical feminists, laity who are struggling to break free from “medieval” patterns of oppressive existence. We know that the Church of 60 Minutes is not the real Church, or at least not the whole story of the real Church. We know that the priesthood represented by a sick film like Priest does not reflect the real priesthood, or at least not the whole story of the real priesthood. We know that the New York Times version of American Catholic theology and practice is not the real story of our theology and practice, or at least not the whole story of our theology and practice. So, what should we do?
I would suggest a two-pronged approach. First, let us be honest enough to acknowledge that — unfortunately — there is truth in what the media say about us: We do have fornicators, adulterers, radicals and dissenters within our bosom; indeed, in all too many places they hold positions of power and authority and exert strong influence on the formation of our national and diocesan priorities, as well as in their execution. It seems to me that if we wish to attack the media elite for their unfair handling of Catholic affairs (and we should), we also need to clean up our own house. That will involve both devoted prayer and serious work. We must pray Almighty God to move the embarrassing sheep within our sheepfold to an experience of genuine conversion, so that their lives are brought into accord with the commitments they freely and, presumably, lovingly made many years ago. At the same time, we must never tire of prevailing upon the bishops — our fathers in God and the chief shepherds of the local churches — to take seriously their responsibility to deal effectively with those who mar the image of the spotless Bride of Christ by their infidelity and counter-witness.
Then we can take on the media with a measure of conviction and integrity. And that is critical to do because not only is vocation recruitment adversely affected by the negative images of the Church abroad in society, but also the Church’s overall work of evangelization. Inaccurate images perpetuate stereotypes which form popular perceptions, and perceptions create reality, whether we like it or not. The persecution against the apostolic Church alluded to in today’s First Reading could not be stemmed by those early believers; it was completely beyond their control. That is not the case with the present onslaught being launched against the Church and her mission to teach and preach the truth of Christ by a self-proclaimed devout Catholic president; we are full-fledged citizens of a democratic republic, with rights and responsibilities to add our voices to the chorus of a pluralistic and free nation. A refusal to do so is to fail both our homeland and our God.
Now, what do we see within the Church? Or better yet, what do our young people see when they seek out images of priesthood and religious life? The Church-at-large has been fed a line which argues that the vocational well has dried up, that no young people are willing to “buy into” the traditional notions of priesthood and religious life. When we assert, without fear of contradiction, that such a contention is patently false and an exercise in wishful thinking, we have been most charitable in our evaluation. The young themselves are often put through the paces by ecclesiastical bureaucrats who intend to screen out those who have the mind of the Church and in this way to obviate the true renewal of the Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and, at the same time, to create such a dearth of vocations that their own aspirations for Catholic life will become the operative terms of the discussion, by dint of circumstances.
Bishops also play into the hands of such people — not infrequently in an unwitting manner — by committing themselves and their dioceses to pastoral plans which take defeat and disaster as “givens” with programs like the appointment of lay parochial administrators and the encouragement of so-called priestless Eucharists. Good religious abet the further deterioration of religious life by adopting the herd instinct of “going along to get along” and maintaining silence in the face of wrong-headed schemes within their communities. Priests who are not normally identifiable as priests in the day-to-day affairs of the secular city make the priesthood even more invisible and eccentric; beyond that, deputing lay people to perform their sacramental responsibilities simply reinforces notions of a priesthood in which there is very little to recommend a life-long, celibate and sacrificial response.
But once more we must realize that this is by no means the total story. For there are dioceses and religious congregations in which we find such a glut of youthful vocations as almost to exceed one’s wildest dreams and imaginings. What image do they project? One sees young clergy and religious on fire with love for Christ, His Gospel and His Church. One sees confident disciples who know the truth and desire to spend their lives communicating it. One sees clerics and consecrated religious who are proud of their vocations, want the world to know that, and intend to encourage countless others to follow them in responding to the invitation of the Master. And the result of all this? Dioceses and communities like that will not know what to do with all their candidates and will eventually be sending them out as missionaries to other ecclesial settings which are in danger of extinction because of prior decisions to embark on programs of action which have been suicidal.
Today the Book of Revelation speaks to us about those “who have survived the great period of trial.” I submit that you and I are among that number. When Cardinal Newman took a realistic look at the situation in which he found himself, he ultimately concluded that “it is the coming of a Second Spring; it is a restoration.” We can have a similar confidence, not because of our own genius, creativity, ingenuity or gimmickry but because this is the Church of the Lamb, and it is He who will shepherd us. He has promised it, and His Word never fails.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation on priestly formation. He entitled it, Pastores Dabo Vobis, harking back to the prophecy of Jeremiah as God assured His people: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” The “will” of that verb is not a simple future tense; it conveys a determination on God’s part to give us the shepherds that we need. Therefore, even when society tries to dirty our faces, God says, Pastores dabo vobis. Even when Church officials sit on their hands in the face of crises, God says, Pastores dabo vobis. Even when the vessels of election show themselves to be vessels of clay, God says, Pastores dabo vobis. And they are to be shepherds of a most special kind — shepherds after the heart of none other than the Good Shepherd Himself.
The Holy Father reflects on the divine pledge thus:
Today, this promise of God is still living and at work in the Church. At all times, she knows she is the fortunate receiver of these prophetic words. She sees them put into practice daily in so many parts of the world, or rather, in so many human hearts, young hearts in particular. On the threshold of the third millennium, and in the face of the serious and urgent needs which confront the Church and the world, she yearns to see this promise fulfilled in a new and richer way, more intensely and effectively; she hopes for an extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost. [n. 82]
My dear friends, may our poor prayers and efforts always seek to be worthy of God’s holy determination to provide His flock with the shepherds it needs, shepherds of appropriate quality and quantity, shepherds after the Lord’s own heart.
Fr. A. Francis HGN