When the Church looks to foster vocations, we commit ourselves to a long-term project. For example, as individual Catholics, we need to consider how our words, actions, and prayers support priests and religious in general. Would young people around us be encouraged to become priests or nuns based on how we speak of, or treat, our bishops, pastors, and religious? Some Catholics complain and insist that we need more nuns or priests, but then discourage their own children from following such a vocation because in doing so, their children will be choosing celibacy. Thus, the parents will have no grandchildren, which is their overriding concern. If we want vocations, then we must ourselves be willing to sacrifice our wants and desires, and look to our own children and our own young people. In short, we must be open to vocations.
But once we are open to vocations, how do we go about encouraging them within our own homes? Well, we must begin with prayer. We need to encourage our youth to pray and be open to the Holy Spirit. God has a plan for our youth, but sometimes young people walk away from that plan. We need to talk about the priesthood and religious life in the conversations we have with our children, so that they know they can broach the subject with us if they feel a call.
Let us also look to the examples of the saints for our models of a virtuous life. Not every Catholic is a great example of sanctity. Some of us fail, cause scandal, and demonstrate our selfishness and weakness more than heroic virtue. But we Catholics have the saints to be our tried and true heroes, our great exemplars of the Faith. So let us teach our children about them, to turn to them, study their lives, learn from their examples, and invoke their intercession. Do our young men know about John Fisher or Miguel Pro? Do our young ladies know about Mother Drexel or Edith Stein? How are they to know the saints (and the various vocations of the saints) if we don’t introduce them?
Next, we need to appreciate that we reap what we did not sow. It is often a faithful family, a local pastor, or a bishop who fostered a vocation, who sowed the seeds that we now harvest. We must learn to be grateful, and to honor and respect the sources of these vocations. Sometimes we imagine that our job is to change people and make them more like us, and less like the person who inspired the vocation. With respect, our job in the formation of vocations is not to tear down and rebuild, but to build upon foundations already laid. We should not want young people to be more like us; we should want them to be more like Jesus. Honoring the source of a vocation means we’re listening and discerning the will of God ourselves. He wants to bless us and help us if we’re open to His will.
And if we reap what we did not sow, then we must also realize that we shall sow what others will reap. We do this so the next generation will not only have a harvest, but will also be able to raise up more harvesters. Are we encouraging our young people in roles of leadership within the Church as altar servers or as choristers? Are we forming Catholic youth who know their faith? Are we perpetuating their catechetical and liturgical adolescence, or are we challenging them to spiritual maturity? Are we inspiring young people to seek holiness in their lives? Are we being strong advocates for purity and prayer? Are we doing our best to expend ourselves so that the timeless work of the Church can continue after us?
Finally, we need to discern within ourselves whether we are living in such a way that would foster vocations. For example, only those who can embrace continence can really inspire others to embrace celibacy. Moreover, only those who fully understand both the sacramental and the sacrificial nature of the priesthood can form others in that understanding (and this must not be merely an intellectual understanding, but a personal understanding). Only those who strive to live faithfully an orthodox expression of our Catholic Faith can really teach others to do so. And only those who really understand the unique gift of the Catholic Church can inspire others to seek after that precious gift.
Once we know of a young person who wants to heed the call to a religious or priestly vocation, we need to be discerning about where we direct him or her. Certain seminaries and religious orders are healthier than others. A way to assess this or that religious order, seminary or, for that matter, diocese is to ask the following questions. What is their liturgy like? Do they seem to be going through an identity crisis, or are they comfortable in their skin (or habit)? Do they seem to be embarrassed by their Catholicism, or do they exhibit a kind of confidence and self-awareness? Is this community or seminary growing, or is it dying? Is this a community with a good or a bad moral and/or intellectual reputation? Are the decision makers in these places improving their communities, or do they seem to be making things worse? Our Lord invites us to judge a tree by its fruits, so what are the fruits or this or that seminary or religious order? Certainly you can bet young people are asking these questions. In our past, we had many saints who reformed orders or dioceses. Perhaps the majority of their contemporaries resented them, because their reforms were more towards a stricter observance, or moving back towards an ideal established by the saints before them. Still, in the end these reforms proved fortuitous. These reforming saints should, if nothing else, remind us that we are always in need of reform. So, are we reforming, or deforming? In short, would faithful parents who love their son or daughter and who want what is best for him or her, want to send their child to this place? Would a pastor who is inspiring vocations trust this community to really continue to form well his young parishioner? Would a computer-savvy youth who can learn a great deal online (both officially and unofficially) about a seminary or religious community want to go there if asked? As the Church, we need to really consider how well we have done in our own official discernment, transparency, and accountability when it comes to fostering and forming vocations.
The work of praying for and encouraging vocations to the priesthood and to religious life is the ongoing work of the whole Church. No matter to what vocation we are called, we are all called to holiness, and by virtue of how well we respond to that universal call to holiness, we will either inspire others towards the life of sanctity, or we will lead them astray. We all have the burden of that upon our souls, which is why living the life of the Catholic saint is essential to who we are as Catholics. The Lord tells us that He calls many, but that in the end, few are chosen. His grace is overflowing, but we are not always willing to live in that grace. Our Lord never ceases to love and call the rich young man, the tax collector, the centurion, the seller of purple, and the fisherman, but will we hear that call, and if we do, will we respond with our whole lives?