In June of last year my priestly ministry underwent a significant shift in focus as I left my work as parochial vicar at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Niagara Falls and began a new role as director of Vocations for our diocese.
As I recall, shortly after being asked by Bishop Richard J. Malone to accept this role, I knew that the focus of my ministry would go from fostering discipleship to fostering leadership. As a parish priest, I oriented my pastoral work by the premise that there is a universal call to holiness - a call that extends even beyond the bounds of the Catholic Church.
Jesus commissioned His apostles to "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age," (Matthew 28:19-20).
Through this commissioning, it is clear that all people throughout the world are called to be disciples of Christ, regardless of upbringing, race, degree of involvement in the Church, past sins or any other matter. Therefore, as a parish priest, I always tried to keep the understanding that everyone I met, whether a parishioner or not, was somebody to which I was called to help be the best disciple they can be.
Also, in a society that is no stranger to despair and rejection, I knew that it was my call to help even the worst of sinners and farthest removed from the Church to realize that, thanks to Christ's mercy and grace, their call and potential to be holy disciples remains.
Upon accepting the position of Vocations director, I knew that my role in the Church's sanctifying mission of all people remained, but that the highlight of my ministry would be working with those called to leadership. I was now going to be assisting those whom Christ has called to continue the mission of making new disciples, and teaching people everywhere all that He taught. I noticed immediately that one of the major differences between these two roles is that while all people are called to be disciples of Christ, only some are called to Holy Orders and religious life.
Simply put, I was going from assisting the many to finding the few. As one would expect, this task seemed very daunting at first. It reminded me of the game "Where's Waldo," in which a character named Waldo would be somewhere blended into a picture of a crowd of numerous other characters, and the object of the game was to find him.
Upon accepting the role of Vocations director, I felt a very similar challenge. I also thought of the great need for ministers in the Church along with the ways of today's society, which offer many false promises of happiness and fulfillment, as they distract people from their true vocation from God. Furthermore, I knew that most of the people in the pews on Sunday had vocations other than priesthood and religious life, and wondered just how effective my vocation-geared homilies would be.
A short time after accepting the challenge and beginning my new work in vocations ministry, while still quite unsure about what strategies I would use to find those whom God has called to priesthood, and still cumbered by the adjustment from parish ministry, something began to happen that really warmed my heart. Many people that I knew, both personally and professionally, began establishing connections between discerners and me, and they would take the initiative to do so.
Very often people would tell me they know a person who has been thinking about priesthood for long time, but hasn't had the guts yet to talk to anyone about it and could they suggest he speak and meet with me. Also, quite a few campus ministers, youth ministers, young adult ministers and parish catechists have approached me with the same question regarding young men in their programs.
I was most delighted recently when a local high school admissions counselor took note of a young man's consideration of priesthood as a career possibility, and then pulled me aside during my visit to the school and asked me if I would meet with him. When I agreed, he asked me to come with him to the classroom from which the student was being dismissed lest I miss the opportunity to meet him.
These heartwarming experiences in which people have taken the initiative to establish a connection between discerners and me, have taught me something invaluable about my new ministry, and have broadened my idea of who is responsible for fostering vocations. They have taught me that this is a ministry that is shared by everybody. This reminded me of something that I learned when I was first introduced to St. John Paul II's letter "Pastores Dabo Vobis."
This letter was written following a 1990 synod of bishops that met to discuss the formation of priests given some of the challenges of the modern age. In the letter, the following struck me: There is an urgent need, especially nowadays, for a more widespread and deeply felt conviction that all the members of the Church, without exception, have the grace and responsibility to look after vocations. The Second Vatican Council was quite explicit in this regard when it stated, "The duty of fostering vocations falls on the whole Christian community, and they should discharge it principally by living full Christian lives."
Only on the basis of this conviction will pastoral work on behalf of vocations be able to show its truly ecclesial aspect, develop a harmonious plan of action, and make use of specific agencies and appropriate instruments of communion and co-responsibility, (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 41).
This is something I have always found to be beautiful - the cooperation of all members of the Body of Christ in fostering vocations. Little did I know that one day I would be revisiting this as a Vocations director, and I am thankful to all of my lay friends who have reminded me of this by their very example. Words cannot express how beneficial it is, not only to me, but to the whole Church that so many people have been faithful to their duty of fostering vocations.
The duty of all members of the Church to foster vocations can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and the Diocese of Buffalo has been blessed with many of them. Many parishes regularly pray the Prayer for Vocations, and many parishioners voluntarily offer Holy Hours for vocations. There are also larger groups that support both seminarians and the vocations office, which include a number of Knights of Columbus Councils and the Serra Club of Buffalo.
I have also been delighted to see that many colleges and universities within our diocese have programs to facilitate discernment to priesthood and religious life. In fact, St. Bonaventure University will soon be launching an on-campus residential discernment program for men. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, numerous young adult groups, youth groups, parish catechetical programs, Catholic schools, scout camps and a number of other groups have made a point of maintaining a connection with the Vocations Office.
In addition to all of these groups, Buffalo has also been blessed with some very dedicated religious sisters, whose committed and faith-filled example continues to inspire vocations, not only to their own orders, but also to priesthood. As many priests can testify, it was their being approached by a religious sister as a child and asked to consider a vocation to priesthood that prompted them to discover that priesthood was indeed their vocation.
Upon acknowledging all of these groups and individuals who have who have played their part so well in fostering vocations, I wish to express my sincere gratitude for your help. I also wish to implore all who read this to remember always that you have a role to play in vocation ministry, and to never forget the importance of that role.
It doesn't matter who you are, a priest, religious brother or sister, teacher, coach, niece or nephew, aunt or uncle, parent, co-worker or student. God may have put you in the path of someone whom He has called, and maybe you are to be the first to approach that person with encouragement, support, and prayers.
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for all of your help in supporting vocations to holy orders and religious life, and I implore you to continue your great work.