Dearly beloved, there is, certainly, in the remnant Church today, a very critical need for vocations — for priests, Brothers and Sisters to work with souls, to help bring about the salvation of souls through their lives of dedication. How badly do we not need priests to bring the Mass and the Sacraments to people all over the country and elsewhere! There are so many souls who are rarely see a priest, souls waiting to hear the Word of God, to hear the truth preached to them! Priests, as we say in our prayer for vocations, “who will stand before the altar, who will preach the Word of God; Brothers, who will assist the priests and who will reproduce in themselves the humility of Christ.” ...Brothers who will enable priests to fulfill their obligations by taking care of other tasks that the priests do not have time for. Brothers are companions, assistants to the priests. They earn graces for souls by their lives of humility. A religious Brother has a hidden role, a role in which he can draw down many graces from Heaven.
Finally, and very importantly, we need more religious Sisters, “to teach the young and to nurse the sick...” How can we possibly fathom the value and the importance of religious instruction for children? We have the blessing and the benefit of Catholic schools in our community, but there are traditional Catholics throughout our country who have no school. Many of them even have a difficulty providing their children with catechism classes on the weekends — with a traveling priest, and no Sisters there to help. How much we need religious to fulfill these various tasks to bring about the salvation of souls!
I would like to speak to you this morning on the teachings of the Church concerning vocations. First of all, what is a vocation? The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word meaning “to call.” It is a call from God to serve Him more perfectly. Do you remember the story in the Gospel of the rich young man who came to Our Lord one day, asking what he must do to enter the kingdom of Heaven? Christ told him to observe the commandments: Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, honor thy father and thy mother, thou shalt not steal, etc. The young man replied, “I have observed all of these from my youth. What else is lacking to me?” The Gospel tells us that Our Lord looked upon him with love, and then said, “If thou wilt be perfect, go, sell all thou hast and give to the poor, and come follow Me.” Our Lord was inviting him to the total dedication of the religious life.
We might say that the first religious community was the Apostolic college, the Twelve Apostles. They lived with Our Lord; they had left their families — for many of them were married — they left all their material goods, and dedicated themselves completely to our Divine Lord, forming a small religious community. The Apostles had responded to the call of Our Lord.
It is important to remember, however, that a vocation does not always come in the way it came to the Apostles, where Our Lord verbally called them as they were out fishing or mending their nets. Usually a religious vocation is not an extraordinary manifestation, although it was, perhaps, for some saints. We must not be misled into thinking there will be a voice in the night, an apparition, or some other unique mystical experience in which God will manifest His call. Usually that is not the case.
There are two types of vocations. First of all, there is the general vocation. Our Lord extended the invitation to all men: “If any man wishes to follow Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” “IF anyone will come after Me...” That is the general invitation. But then there is the more particular vocation given to certain individuals whom God calls specifically.
How does God call one to the religious life? There is usually an inner attraction, or at least a desire, but more than that, there is a choice on the part of the individual based on the realization that the religious life — or the priesthood — is a more perfect life.
It is important that we not be misled into thinking that there must always be a feeling or a mystical experience. As a matter of fact, in the early 1900’s, there was a strong debate over this issue. Until recent years, most spiritual writers placed the essential element of the divine call in a strong interior attraction to the privileged life. They felt that if the desire to be a religious or a priest was absent, there was no real vocation. This theory of the “inner voice” was very common until the early part of this century when a French priest, Canon Lahitton, taught a contrary theory.
According to Canon Lahitton, that which the old theory called “vocation” is merely a responsiveness to actual grace which floods the mind with light, shows it the beauty of the priestly state and strengthens the heart, upholding it in the sacrifices required for the attainment of the sublime end. Vocation, then, is not from within, but from without.
Putting it practically, this means that we need not look for boys with vocations, but for candidates for vocations —that is, for boys who, by their piety and general fitness, give promise of being worthy of the great gift bestowed upon them at the moment of ordination. All that is required is a right intention and such fitness of nature and grace as will afford a well- grounded hope that the candidate will conscientiously discharge the priestly vocation.
In other words, this means that although a person may not feel an attraction, he can choose to enter the religious life or seminary and persevere, cooperate with grace, and go on to take his vows or to become a priest. He is approved by his superior. On the other hand, an individual may have the desire or attraction to become a religious or priest, may enter the religious life, and after a period of time, may be told by his superiors that he does not have a vocation — that he does not possess the qualities necessary, and therefore cannot become a priest or religious. We cannot, therefore, put too much trust in the attraction to the religious life.
The book written by this French priest in the early twentieth century brought on a storm of protest from theologians. In fact, there was a strong attempt to have it placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Pope St. Pius X, however, personally intervened by creating a commission of cardinals to examine the question. The commission decided in favor of the book and the Holy Father confirmed the decision, implying a definite approval of the doctrine taught in the book concerning vocations. The moral of the story is not to place too much reliance on feelings, interior attraction, emotion, etc. Vocation is, rather, an intellectual choice by which a young man or woman chooses to give his or her life to God.
Young people who believe that God is calling them to serve Him must foster that vocation. It is not simply going to happen. They must pray for the grace to follow their vocation, to know for certain what God’s Will is, and when they are certain of His call, and the time is right and the opportunity is there for follow it, they should not delay. St. Alphonsus says that the devil will tempt a person who knows he is called by God to delay one day, and then another, and then a week, a month, a year, and before you know it, the vocation is lost. God takes away the vocation, or perhaps we should say, takes away the grace to follow that vocation. So do not delay if you are called by God.
I would like to speak for a few minutes here about the religious life in particular. The religious life is the most excellent way of life — there can be no question about that. It is the teaching of the Church. It is the most perfect form of life, to follow Christ, to imitate Him. The vows remove the three principal obstacles to our salvation. One of them is greed or avarice; another is concupiscence, the battle with the flesh; the third is pride. These are the three main obstacles to our salvation, but the vows directly counteract these obstacles. The vow of poverty, whereby a religious surrenders the control of property, attacks the tendency to avarice or greed. He subdues his fallen nature in that regard. Through the vow of chastity, he overcomes and controls concupiscence. Through the vow of obedience, he subdues his pride. This does not mean that he completely eliminates these tendencies, but the vows are a means to this end.
The religious, in taking these vows, fully understands what he is doing. Church law requires the superiors to make certain that a novice fully understands what is required of him. Otherwise, the vows would not even be considered valid. The religious knows what he is doing and does it through his own choice for the love of God.
Some people concentrate too much on the negative side: You are giving up this or that — how can you do it? Without the grace of God, we would not be able to do it. We must stress the love of God. A religious gives up everything for the love of God. Look at this positive aspect. A religious has, in a sense, a more full life because of his vows. A young woman becomes a Sister, and gives up motherhood in its natural sense, but she becomes a mother of many children — all the children she teaches, all the souls to whom she becomes a spiritual mother. She has a much larger family than she would have had had she become a natural mother. A priest also gives up marriage and the opportunity to have his own children — but he, too, has many spiritual children. And so you see, we should consider the positive aspects of religious life, not just what one has to give up.
I have heard people say, “I don’t believe priests and religious can really be celibate.” They, of course, are not taking into consideration the grace of God. God’s grace makes possible that which would perhaps be impossible to nature.
Of course, the biggest obstacle to vocation is selfishness. We are all selfishness to various degrees, but a young man or woman who is called by God to serve Him often has to face a real struggle. The reason is that self does not like the idea of giving up its freedom. We want to be able to control our own lives — that is normal. In becoming a religious, a person surrenders that freedom. That is why obedience is the biggest sacrifice of all, because by it one gives up the right to do his own will and submits instead to a superior.
It is sad to see how many vocations are lost. Boys, when they are ten, eleven or twelve years old, are often eager to become priests, talking about it unashamedly. They know God is calling them; they desire to become priests. But when they get into their teenage years, the world with its pleasures attracts them, and self rebels at the thought of losing it all. So many vocations are lost. That is why young people who have vocations must safeguard them. They must avoid occasions of sin and dangers to their vocation. They must pray for the grace to follow that call when the time is right.
How can we possibly understand the importance, the value, the beauty, of a vocation to the priesthood? If a young man went to the seminary for eight or ten years, studied hard — even losing his health — but was ordained so that he could offer only one Mass before dying, it would all have been worth it — all the sacrifices his parents made, all the struggles involved — just for one Mass. To stand at the altar and to call God down upon the altar, to renew the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to His Heavenly Father — all would have been worth it. For a priest to forgive one sin in the confessional, to convert one soul by his words, to help one soul by his spiritual counsel, his sermons — all would have been worth it.
Boys who are called to the priesthood should think of their responsibility to save souls when they feel that struggle between selfishness and the call of God. They should think to themselves, “If I reject this call, what will happen to all those souls out there God would have saved through my ministry if I am not there to give them the sacraments, to hear their confessions, to preach to them? If I reject God’s call, He may call someone else, but no one can do exactly what He wanted me to do.” Each individual, to some degree, in that sense, is irreplaceable. This is something young men should reflect upon.
Remember: vocations concern all Catholics. If you are a young man or woman called to the marriage state, you might think that you don't need to worry about vocations. But you do ’ who is going to bless your marriage, baptize and teach your children? Think about the need for vocations. We, as members of the Church, should be concerned for her welfare. We should not be so selfish and narrow-minded that our only concern is that we save our own souls. What about all the millions of people wandering in darkness today? What about all those people who desire a priest to give them the sacraments? All of us must do our part by praying for vocations for the welfare of souls and Holy Mother Church.
Parents should consider it an honor to have one of their children called to the religious life. Sometimes that is difficult for parents — they feel that they are losing that son or daughter. But compare that with the anguish some parents experience worrying over whom their son or daughter will marry, about a son or daughter having difficulty maintaining work in the world, about their children or grandchildren being raised as Catholics in these difficult times, and on and on. Parents, I repeat, should consider it a tremendous honor and should pray for that blessing.
Our priests use a book of instructions for young people preparing for marriage entitled Plain Talks on Marriage. In this book the author states that, although it is not a doctrine of the Church, it is a pious belief that if a family has a member who becomes a religious and perseveres in that vocation, all the members of that family will be given the graces they need to save their souls. They will be given unique graces so that the entire family will be reunited in heaven. Again, while it is not a doctrine of the Church, there is no doubt that many blessings will be given to a family who has a member in the religious life.
There is a beautiful example in the life of the mother of Cardinal Vaughn, who lived in the nineteenth century. This woman went to the early Mass every morning, and went back to the church in the evening to make a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament. All five of her daughters became nuns; of her eight sons, six became priests. Of those six, one of those priests became a cardinal, one became a bishop, and another became a famous Jesuit preacher. The two other sons also entered seminaries, but discovered that they did not have vocations, and later got married and raised children, many of whom became religious. That one woman, through her deep prayer life, praying every day for vocations, merited those tremendous graces. Imagine her reward in heaven for bringing about those vocations and the souls they in turned saved!
Even one vocation is purchased at the price of many prayers. Parents should pray daily for that blessing. On the one hand, they should not hinder or discourage their children from following their vocation. On the other hand, they should not try to force a son or daughter into the religious life who does not feel called to it. Rather, parents should simply create the proper atmosphere in their home and then let the grace of God do its work. They should make sure there are no occasions of sin, that there is order and discipline, that the Faith is lived, and then pray that God will draw a vocation from that home. Pray, as Our Lord said, “that the Lord of the harvest send laborers into His harvest.”
I will now address the young people in attendance, who need to know what God wants them to do. You must pray to know God’s Will, and once you become convinced of it — whether it be to become married, to remain single, or to dedicate your life to God as a religious or priest — you must pray for the grace to follow through with it. You should seek counsel from a priest with regard to this most important choice of your whole life. It is the most important decision you will ever make.
Young people who feel called to the religious life, to God’s service as priests, Sisters, Brothers — do not allow a fear of failure to turn you away. Sometimes young people think, “What if I enter the seminary, stay for a while, and then leave because it’s not my vocation? People will look down on me — I’ll be a failure.” You should not allow this fear to turn you away. Before Vatican II, there was customarily a high rate of attrition with regard to vocations. Often, less than 50 percent of those who entered the seminary came out as priests. One can feel that he is called by God, and yet be told by his superiors that he does not have a vocation. It is certainly no shame to enter the religious life or the seminary, and then to find out one is not called to that state of life.
Spiritual writers sometimes speak of what they call a temporary vocation. A person may really believe that he is called by God; he enters the religious life, but after a year or so, it becomes apparent to the superiors and to the subject that he is not called to that state of life. God, however, drew that person into the religious life on a temporary basis. That person thereby learned about the spiritual life, established good habits, a good prayer life, and then returned to the world much better for it. Do not fear failure, but neither must you fear a vocation.
Do you think religious are sad? Do you think priests are miserable? St. Teresa said that there is no such thing as a sad saint. The saints were the happiest of human beings. If you go to a religious life and meet religious who are living their vocation, you will find that they are happy, not sad. So do not fear a religious vocation. On the other, fear not follow a vocation. Young people who are called by God but don’t follow through will never be happy, because they will know for their entire life that they did not do what God wanted them to do. No matter what they do with their lives, something will be missing; something will be not quite right. If you desire to be happy in this world and in the next, always seek to do God’s holy Will, especially in this most important decision of your life.
Above all, we need dedicated vocations — rather a few who are solid and fervent, than many who are half-hearted and lukewarm. Let us all pray for vocations — for fervent, dedicated young men and women to fulfill the needs of the Church. Vocations are needed now. Of course, it takes a period of time for formation and training, whether it be a young man becoming a priest, or a young woman becoming a religious Sister. But the need for vocations is critical.
In conclusion, I would like to read to you a little prayer, a little poem, which was written by a young girl in school some years ago. The prayer seems a fitting summary to these thoughts on the religious life: “O God,” she said, “I thank You for all the Sisters, priests and Brothers. I thank You for all the teachers and Sisters at the school. I thank You for all the missionaries that go over all the world. And God, will You please make more of these nice people. And if they say no, please ask me. Amen.”