Give Us Shepherds!

7 Feb

ordinationIn our series during this “Year of Faith” on the 16 documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), we turn to the first of two conciliar documents on the ordained priesthood, namely Optatam Totius, the 1965 Decree on Priestly Training. In a forthcoming post we will look at Presbyterorum Ordinis, the 1965 Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests.

Optatam Totius should not be read apart from Bl. John Paul II’s 1992 document Pastores Dabo Vobis (“I Will Give You Shepherds”) written at the conclusion of an international synod discussing the promotion of priestly vocations and the training of men for the priesthood in today’s cultural climate.

Both Optatam Totius and Pastores Dabo Vobis provide significant teaching on seminaries and the various aspects of formation provided there–human, spiritual, intellectual (philosophical and theological), and pastoral.

Paragraph 2 of Pastores Dabo Vobis drives home the priority of this topic:

“The formation of future priests, both diocesan and religious, and lifelong assiduous care for their personal sanctification in the ministry and for the constant updating of their pastoral commitment is considered by the Church one of the most demanding and important tasks for the future of the evangelization of humanity.”

Yet, I’d like to focus today on the fostering of vocations to the priesthood, which according to Optatam Totius is the work of “the whole Christian community” (no. 2). We can build the best seminaries in the world, and meticulously devise the most comprehensive formation program possible, but if young men aren’t willing to step forward in the first instance, we have a problem. A serious problem.

Now, the priesthood today is a complex topic, and any talk of a “shortage” or “crisis” must be tempered by Bl. John Paul’s exhortation that our first response must be a total act of faith in the Holy Spirit. We must be “deeply convinced that this trusting abandonment will not disappoint if we remain faithful to the graces we have received” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, no. 1). We trust that the Lord will always provide us shepherds after His own heart (cf. Jer. 3:15; 23:4), yet we are called to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in this great work of inviting young people to “come and see” (cf. Jn. 1:39).

For that reason, I want to highlight today this quote from Vatican II:

“The principal contributors to [the promotion of priestly vocations] are the families which, animated by the spirit of faith and love and by the sense of duty, become a kind of initial seminary, and the parishes in whose rich life the young people take part” (Optatam Totius, no. 2).

This certainly connects with Vatican II’s emphasis on the family as a “domestic Church” or “Church in miniature” (cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 11; Catechism, nos. 1655-56, 2204). Families and local parish communities should be seedbeds or incubators of all vocations, creating what we might call a “culture of vocations” or, even more fundamentally, a “culture of discipleship.”

None of this is rocket science. If the faith is robustly lived within the family, there’s a much greater likelihood that the children will develop a close personal relationship with Christ and will actively seek out and embrace His will for them, which for some will include the priesthood or consecrated life.

What can complicate the picture is where the family (or even the parish!) does not make the Christian formation of youth a priority, which can be rooted in ignorance or neglect, or perhaps by a conscious decision to not be “too religious,”as they understand it, possibly the result of worldliness or scandal.

So if the faith is in some sense an inter-generational relay race, the “baton” has not always been passed as well as it can be in recent decades.

But let me go one step farther. All parents want their kids to be happy and “successful.” However, we have different concepts of what that might mean. Some families may want their children to become doctors or lawyers or members of other professions that offer wealth and prestige. With college football “signing day” this week we acknowledge that many families want their children to excel in sports. There are many other good aspirations we could have for our children.

And yet, gone are the days when most Catholic families really esteem a priestly or religious vocation as something we would desire for our children above any other vocation or “occupation.” Studies even show that many of today’s seminarians face opposition rather than encouragement from their own families!

This is an examination of conscience for all Catholic parents and grandparents, I think, during this “Year of Faith.” How strong is our faith? How is the faith communicated, celebrated, and lived within our family? Where does religious education fall in our list of priorities for our children? Are we (or have we been) open to the possibility of one or more of our children becoming a priest or a religious brother or sister? Do we actually encourage discernment on this level?

To aid in our examination of conscience, I encourage parents to take to prayer Catechism, no. 2233:

“Parents should welcome and respect with joy and thanksgiving the Lord’s call to one of their children to follow him in virginity for the sake of the Kingdom in the consecrated life or in priestly ministry.”

4 Responses to “Give Us Shepherds!”

  1. pcamarata February 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    Thanks so much for this, Leon. Those of us with families & children at home should ask ourselves ‘when was the last time we invited a priest or sister over for family dinner?’ A high school friend of mine, Fr. Terry Klein wrote a great article on this years ago which can be read here

    • Bill Scholl February 7, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

      Great advice Paul

    • Bill Scholl February 7, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

      It occurs to me that there is a point where it is difficult to return from. A situation where the priest becomes so rare he does not have much time to interact with his flock. And so Father is aloof be default and the youth are not attracted to the priesthood because they just don’t see Father much or as a regular guy. You have to see it before you can be it.

      It also helps when priests takes the time to make a friendship with young men and that is why the abuse scandal is so diabolical because now priests are understandbly cautious when reaching out to boys.

      • Leon Suprenant February 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

        I’m grateful that my pastor is coming over to our house for dinner next week for “Fat Tuesday.”

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