Albert Schweitzer once remarked, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others – it’s the only thing.”
As I look back upon my own call to priesthood, I recall with gratitude the example I received from a number of remarkable men and women.
The pastor of my childhood parish, Saint Ann’s Parish in Butte, was Father J. Bruce Plummer. Now the most senior priest in the Diocese of Helena, Father Plummer is truly a giant of a man. His booming voice and formidable image still loom large in my memory. Saint Ann Parish blossomed under Father Plummer’s ever watchful eye, pastoral skill and administrative acumen. His deep personal commitment to Jesus Christ and his love of the Church played pivotal roles in the formation of my own call to priesthood.
Father Plummer was mentor to a number of inspiring priests. Father Jack Sladich was his affable and outgoing assistant, beloved by all. Gentle Paul Feldman modeled sensitivity to the sick, the elderly, and the disenfranchised of the parish. The ever-energetic Father Joe Finnegan showed early signs of his commitment to social justice at Saint Ann Parish. Msgr. Joseph Mavsar was the epitome of grace under fire, a priest whose own family was exterminated at the hands of the Nazi Party in his war torn homeland. Who could ask for better examples than these?
My own parents, George and Mary Thomas, created a strong Catholic home where the seeds planted by these good and holy priests and sisters were tended and cultivated. Daily Mass, devotion to the Rosary, novenas to the Mother of Perpetual Help, Lenten Stations of the Cross were the stock and trade of our Catholic upbringing. So, too, mom and dad sacrificed greatly to ensure that I and my siblings had a good Catholic education. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary created a school atmosphere that supported and encouraged all students to consider a vocation to priesthood or religious life.
The culture has changed dramatically since those days in which my own vocation was born. Yet the need for individuals to serve as dedicated priests and consecrated religious is as pressing as ever. We must ask ourselves anew “What needs to be done in our day and age to encourage and inspire our young to consider a vocation to priesthood or religious life?”
Above the portico of the seminary I attended in Washington State is a Latin inscription that translated, “The fields are ripe for the harvest.” The adage is a reminder that God indeed continues to call our young people to priesthood and religious life. But a good harvest requires careful tending and cultivation.
The beginning point of a good vocational harvest is this simple reality: Vocations are everyone’s business. A successful vocational harvest must be approached from a number of different directions:
Vocations to priesthood and religious life are often born in the context of strong Catholic family life. Families that foster strong Catholic identity are among the first to inspire their children to consider a call to priesthood or religious life. Families that pray together strengthen the awareness that all persons are called to holiness, and this awareness is the foundation for all vocations. Families who are active in the local parish are the ones who are producing the greatest number of vocations in today’s world.
Indeed, moms and dads are often the first to recognize a budding vo-cation, and can do much to either foster or destroy their child’s response to God’s promptings. The parents of priests and religious will also tell you that a priest or religious in the family is the source of inestimable joy and blessing for the entire family. In this day and age, their stories need to be shared widely.
The Essential Role of Priests and Religious Women
Holy, wholesome, joyful priests and sisters are catalytic in the vocations process. There is nothing more inspiring than a happy, holy priest. There is nothing more important than the witness of a sister committed to the charism of her community through humble service to the Church and society. That is why Pope Paul VI insisted, “The Church needs witnesses more that teachers.” Priests, religious, and lay leaders must also have the courage to invite our youth by name to consider a calling to priesthood or religious life.
Every priest and sister is in reality a “Co-vocation Director” working in concert with the diocese or religious community in a common effort to identify and support new vocations.
The parish community holds inestimable potential for inspiring and supporting potential vocations to priesthood, religious life, diaconate, and the lay apostolate. It is here that our youth and young adults experience the power of Sacramental life and pastoral outreach. It is here that they find peer support for Catholic living. Everyone in the parish should help to create a “vocations positive” community. Pastors and parish leaders would do well to ask a number of questions:
- Are the religious education and sacramental preparation programs in your parish top quality and vocations friendly?
- Is your parish one which gives a “preferential option” for the young?
- Are you providing the youth with opportunities to serve the needy and homebound through service programs inspired by Catholic social teaching?
- Do you include prayers for vocations to priesthood and religious life in the weekly prayers of the faithful?
- Are you aware that many modern day seminarians are coming from parishes where they have been actively involved in liturgical roles, youth retreats, holy hours and Eucharistic adoration?
- Do you know that many of our seminarians discovered their calling through service in their parish as a worker, volunteer, or peer mentor?
The Diocese of Helena will ensure that vocations ministry is an integral part of our core mission. Our Diocesan Pastoral Council is presently engaged in a diocesan wide listening process, designed to help me establish pastoral priorities for the next several years. From what I have already heard, I am confident that vocations ministry will emerge as one of the top priorities. In a word, we will work together to establish an intentional, systematic and comprehensive vocations ministry plan. This approach will help us work together, identifying, supporting and forming new generations of priests and religious to serve in our beloved Diocese of Helena.
“The fields are ripe for the harvest.” Pick up your water can, shovel, hoe, and come follow me.
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 22, No. 1, January 20, 2006.