For all of us who are baptized there is only one vocation: to follow Christ. Hence, we acknowledge that there are different ways of following Christ. Nonetheless, as Catholics, when we think of vocations we think almost exclusively in terms of ordained ministry and religious life. It is important for us to remember that marriage, like holy orders, is also a sacramental vocation, whereas being a professed member of a religious order, a nun or a non-ordained religious brother, is not accomplished by conferring a sacrament on the one who makes her/his life-long, vows. Being a professed member of a religious order, regardless of the charism or ministry of the order, is no less important to the Body of Christ than bishops, priests, and deacons, or married couples. Likewise, many Christians are called to live lives that do not require ordination, marriage, or publicly professing solemn vows. For those of you who are single, you still have a vocation to follow Jesus Christ and make Him present in the world, in your work, in your relationships, in all you do. Your vocation, which you heeded in baptism, had strengthened in confirmation, and is renewed in this Eucharist, is no less important than any other vocation given in and through the Church for the salvation of the world.
A vocation is a calling. It comes from the Latin verb vocare, which simply means “to call.” In a Christian context it means a function, or way of life, to which one is called by God. Our call, our vocation, arises from within the Church, flowing as it does from our baptism. At World Youth Day earlier this year Pope Benedict XVI told the young people gathered around him that “following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. Anyone who would be tempted to do so ‘on his own,’ or to approach the life of faith with that kind of individualism so prevalent today, will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.” Stated simply, being religious and spiritual are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.
Even as Catholics, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. The baptized constitute God’s priestly people. Of course, as Catholics, we recognize that there is a subset of God’s priestly people who are called to what is best-described as “the ministerial priesthood.” The word ministry is very important in this regard. Ministry refers to those tasks performed as a service to others. Christian ministry, that is, service performed in the name of Christ, is humble, self-sacrificing service, which is why Jesus, in our Gospel today, says, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). One of the most important titles of the pope is, “Servant of the Servants of God.” Forgetting this simple and basic truth is often what leads to the kind of the troubles we have experienced in the Church over the past decade. Hence, it is the job of priests, in communion with their bishop, and with the assistance of deacons, to put themselves wholly at the service of God’s people, not to lord over them, exercise power, or seek to exert worldly influence.
Earlier this month we observed the forty-ninth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which was a life-giving watershed for the Church. Perhaps the most over-arching call of the council, one that we are still very much in the process of realizing, was the universal call to holiness. This universal call is the vocation of all Christians everywhere. In his address at the opening of Vatican II, Bl. John XXIII, whose wholly unexpected and transformative papacy formally began fifty-three years ago Friday, reminded the Church that our Lord commanded us “to seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Jesus, by telling us to seek the kingdom of God “first,” before anything else, is urging you to respond to your vocation by indicating “what the primary direction of all [y]our thoughts and energies must be.”
Bl. Pope John went on to say that we mustn’t forget what the Lord promises us, that if you put God’s kingdom first, then everything else “shall be given you besides” (Matt 6:33). This is done by adhering to what Jesus said in last week’s Gospel, first loving God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and loving “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37.39). It is our job, yours and mine, to see that this divine injunction has an “impact on the various spheres of human activity—in private, family and social life.”
In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul wrote about exactly the kind of ministry Jesus calls us to engage in when he wrote about his ministry among them: “You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9). His humble service is what gives the apostle creditability and authority. At the beginning of the passage he seeks to show that the toil and drudgery were endured out of love and without complaint: “We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).
Today there are those among us who are still in the process of deciding the direction of their lives. So, I urge the young people here to make this a matter of discernment, that is, to listen to the Holy Spirit, making what you decide to do a matter of prayer, a matter of discussion with your parents, with your teachers, with your peers, and, yes, even our priests. Too often becoming a priest and/or a member of a religious order is dismissed out-of-hand, by young people and parents alike. According to many diocesan vocations directors, one of the biggest barriers to young people choosing (God never forces us into anything) priesthood and/or religious life is Catholic parents, who often have negative views of a Church vocation, and actively discourage young people from pursuing such a call, feeling that priesthood and religious life are less joyful, and fulfilling than other modes of life.
A friend of mine, who is a priest, sent me an email this week drawing my attention to a symposium that took place the first week of this month in Washington, D.C. The title of the symposium was, “Why Are Priests Happy?” I was very glad to read about a presentation given by Msgr. Stephen Rosetti, a theologian and psychologist, which confirmed my own personal experience, namely that U.S. Catholic priests “are demonstrably among the happiest, most job-fulfilled and satisfied men in the country.” The key reasons for this, according to Msgr. Rossetti, are their prayer life and the close relations they have established with God, fellow priests and laity in their parishes. We should be encouraged, not only that our priests are happy and fulfilled, but the reasons given for their happiness and fulfillment. Just we should not let popular culture shape the morals and values of our young people we should not let the popular media shape and form their view and understanding of the Church.
Bishop Wester has called us all to greater stewardship, which is but a reminder of our baptismal call to follow Christ in a concrete way by fulfilling our obligation to help provide for the needs of the Church, or, more accurately, to be Church, which calls each of us to freely and charitably give of our resources and ourselves. What Jesus is calling us to these past few weeks is to find practical and concrete ways to give ourselves in humble service to others for His sake and the sake of God’s kingdom. As Pope Benedict recently said, “What we believe is important, but even more important is the One in whom we believe,” the One who calls us to devote ourselves wholly to realizing God’s kingdom in practice, not only in theory.