A stained-glass window depicting Jesus, the Good Shepherd in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, West Trenton.  Monitor file photo
A stained-glass window depicting Jesus, the Good Shepherd in Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, West Trenton. Monitor file photo
" Married life and the love of husbands and wives is such a vocation.  Religious/consecrated life in its many forms is such a vocation. The single lay state is such a vocation.  And the ordained ministry as deacons and priests is such a vocation. "

In his 2019 message for World Day of Prayer for Vocations, our Holy Father Pope Francis wrote:

The Lord’s call is not an intrusion of God in our freedom; it is not a “cage” or a burden to be borne. On the contrary, it is the loving initiative whereby God encounters us and invites us to be part of a great undertaking. He opens before our eyes the horizon of a greater sea and an abundant catch. … We are called to be bold and decisive in seeking God’s plan for our lives. Gazing out at the vast “ocean” of vocation, we cannot remain content to repair our nets on the boat that gives us security, but must trust instead in the Lord’s promise.

Profound and insightful words!  The Catholic Church in the United States “casts our nets” once more as we celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week, Nov. 3-9, 2019.

The word “vocation” means a “call” and it presumes someone calling and someone called.  As Catholics, of course, we identify “the caller” as God himself.  In our faith, we believe that God has a plan for each of us and that God calls us, invites us to consider that plan and, hopefully, accept.  Different from merely a job, a “vocation” is all-encompassing, requiring a free and willing response and total commitment to the One who calls and to what is asked of us in that call.

Married life and the love of husbands and wives is such a vocation.  Religious/consecrated life in its many forms is such a vocation. The single lay state is such a vocation.  And the ordained ministry as deacons and priests is such a vocation.

The Diocese of Trenton and all its parishes should foster, promote and pray for all these “vocations” – or “states in life,” as we used to call them – in every way and as often as possible, so that the faithful can see their lives as generous and loving responses to a generous and loving God.

‘Urgent Priority’

As Bishop of the Diocese, I have a special responsibility to encourage young men to consider a vocation to the diocesan priesthood, although I certainly encourage a prayerful and generous response to all vocations mentioned above.  Priests are, as the Rite of Ordination to Holy Orders makes abundantly clear, the Bishop’s principal “collaborators” in ministerial service to God’s people.

It’s no secret these days that the number of young men entering seminaries as well as the number of priests available for parishes or other works has been declining for decades.  Apart from a brief uptick in 2016-2018, the recruitment of seminarians has proved to be quite challenging for dioceses and religious orders.  The Diocese of Trenton is no exception.  This past September, for example, only one new seminarian joined the ranks of 13 continuing Trenton seminarians in St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.  No priests or deacons were ordained for the Diocese of Trenton in 2019.

Priestly vocations are an urgent priority for our Diocese.  That is not to diminish the ministerial commitment of amazing lay women and men by any means.  Our parishes would not long survive without them! However, I often remember the sentiment expressed by Pope St. John Paul II: without priests, there would be no Eucharist; without the Eucharist, there would be no Church.

In his 2004 Holy Thursday “Letter to Priests,” the sainted pope reflected:

Vocations are indeed a gift from God for which we must pray unceasingly. Following the invitation of Jesus, we need to pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (cf. Mt 9:37). … Let us pause in the Upper Room and contemplate the Redeemer who instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood at the Last Supper. On that holy night he called by name each and every priest in every time. He looked at each one of them with the same look of loving encouragement with which he looked at Simon and Andrew, at James and John, at Nathanael beneath the fig tree, and at Matthew sitting at the tax office. Jesus has called us and, along a variety of paths, he continues to call many others to be his ministers.  From the Upper Room Christ tirelessly seeks and calls.

Shared Responsibility

The Lord Jesus “called by name each and every priest in every time.”  In other words, he is still calling and calling “by name.”  That call can and does come in a variety of ways, not the least of which is a suggestion made by a priest, religious or other committed Catholic or fellow parishioner to a good young man, “have YOU ever thought about becoming a priest?”

What is interesting to me, as Bishop, is that I ask that question to young men in every parish and Catholic school I visit throughout the Diocese – and have done so since the day I arrived.  And you know what?  There has not been a single parish or Catholic school – not one – where I haven’t found at least one young man who has said to me in reply “I have thought about it.”   Amazing!  We need to identify and encourage such young men to consider the priesthood … and young women to consider religious life (and I have and continue to do so in those same parishes and Catholic schools!).  And while religious orders of women and men have the responsibility for actively recruiting their own members, seeking and encouraging candidates for the diocesan priesthood is a responsibility we all share in the Diocese.

For my peers and me while growing up, the challenge to becoming a priest that we thought about most frequently was celibacy, not getting married and having a family. While later working with kids as a young priest myself, I discovered that the challenge shifted to become, “how much will I make?”  In more recent times, however, young men tell me that they do not find encouragement to become priests from their parents and families, especially if they are an only child or the only male in the family.  Understandable, sure.  But responding to God’s call, whatever it may be, has always required sacrifice, not only for the one called but also for those who surround him.  

No one can deny that the “optics” regarding priesthood (and episcopacy) these days are clouded by numerous scandals engulfing the Church.  We must face and address those scandals head on with our seminarians and discerners. Our Diocese and our seminaries do that.  At the same time, I am encouraged and have been deeply impressed by our seminarians’ resolve to “stay the course” despite the scandals, and commit themselves to personal holiness and fidelity to vocation.

At 64-plus years of age and after almost 38 years of priesthood (including nine-plus years as a bishop here), I have seen a great deal of challenge and change in the Catholic Church. But one thing has remained constant: the need to center our lives as Catholics on the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life.  And another constant, closely related to the Eucharist: the need for good, holy, faithful priests.  I believe it was quite intentional that the Lord Jesus instituted both those Sacraments at the same time on the night before he died for us.

A vocation to the priesthood – not unlike other vocational states in life – requires much of the person called.  Sacrifice is writ large in the “job description” of the priest, for sure.  But, then, so is prayer and study and preaching the Word of God and handing on Church teaching and administering the Sacraments and offering counsel and being available to serve God’s people in their most basic needs 24/7.  No doubt, one gives up a lot to follow this vocation to the altar.  The path, however, and the destination to which it leads give an incomparable joy and sense of fulfillment that cannot quite be put into words.

For those who are priests, thank God! For those considering the priesthood, take the next step.  For those not yet considering it, give it a thought.  For everyone else, “pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”