The priesthood as gift and mystery

A recent study out of Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), reported that priestly ordinations are on the rise in the United States. What a blessing to know that more men are courageously responding to the Lord's invitation with an enthusiastic "Yes!" As I have said before, knowing everything I know, I would be a priest all over again in a heartbeat.

An important distinction must be made: It's not that vocations to the priesthood are on the rise, as if God suddenly realized that numbers were low and so started to call more men. It's that ordinations are on the rise, meaning that more men are listening to the Lord's promptings and are generously responding to Him. God continually invites men to serve His Church as priests. The question is: Are those being invited listening to His call, and are they responding with a generous heart? In a culture in which every voice is competing for a person's attention, in which commitment is to be avoided and self-gratification is to be encouraged, and in which silence is hard to come by, it is truly more difficult to be attentive to God's call and to respond with openness and generosity.

So, what facilitates attentive listening and a generous faith-filled response? The respondents to the CARA survey cited faith formation, prayer and support from priests among the top factors that influenced their decision to enter the seminary. It means that God works through others, through relationships and dialogue, to fulfill His plan, including the family, catechists and the parish community. The latter - support from priests - is absolutely vital in ensuring that men recognize and respond to the vocation to which God is calling them.

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination, Pope Saint John Paul II wrote a book of reflections on the priesthood, titled Gift and Mystery. In this book and in his annual Holy Thursday letters to priests, he emphasized the influence of the joyful priestly witness on the lives of men considering their own vocations. Support from priests is important, but what is even more influential is the witness of a priest visibly fulfilled in his ministry. The late pontiff wrote, "Vocations will certainly not be lacking if our manner of life is truly priestly, if we become more holy, more joyful, more impassioned in the exercise of our ministry. A priest 'won' by Christ more easily 'wins' others, so that they too decide to set out on the same adventure" (cf. John Paul II, Letter to Priests, Holy Thursday 2005)

God-willing, on June 6, I will ordain seven men to the priesthood, to this life of adventure. As a Successor of the Apostles, I will lay my hands on their heads, and as they receive the sacrament of Holy Orders, they will become an "alter Christus," or "another Christ." They will be made the visible instrument of the Lord's grace and mercy in the world, or as Saint Teresa of Avila said plainly, they will be the Lord's hands and feet.

Nearly 50 years ago, just before my own ordination to the priesthood, I gave a homily to my brother deacons during Advent on Gaudete ("Joyful") Sunday. I asked my brothers, "Can we be joyful? At the end of these years of preparation for the priesthood, we find that we are neither so holy nor so learned as we hoped we would be … our talents so few and still so undeveloped." But I assured them, as I was assured by the Scripture that day which repeatedly urged us to rejoice and be happy, "We can be joyful, because despite our insufficiency, the Lord has chosen us to share in His priesthood. The Holy Spirit will be given to us as a continual and abiding pledge of strength and power. We dare to preach, to act and to love as Christ does … because the Spirit will be with us."

The call to the priesthood is both a gift and a mystery. It is a blessed life, in which we are asked as priests to give our whole lives in humble service to others. But it also a mystery as to why God chooses us, we who are so human, so unworthy. God takes the first step toward us; we simply respond by stepping out in faith to present ourselves to the Lord.

My dear brothers and sisters, let us ask the Holy Spirit, who just bestowed on us His manifold gifts at Pentecost, to enliven us in our prayer for this diocesan Church: that the Lord Jesus would bless the men who present themselves for ordination on June 6 and that He would show us each how to encourage future generations of men to listen for God's call and to respond with joy!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015