The Key to Vocations
World Day of Prayer for Vocations
The first Letter of Peter features prominently in the Church’s liturgy during Easter. It is read in the Office of Readings during the Octave of Easter. It provides the Second Readings for the Easter Season every third year in the three-year cycle of readings, and three of the Easter season Epistles in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass are from First Peter. The Church’s reflection on the Scriptures, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has led to the attention given this short Epistle in this season.
The First Epistle of Peter emphasizes faithful living under the stress of hostility and persecution. It ties the Church’s sufferings to those of her Lord. It urges a stance of fidelity and of high moral seriousness no matter what the circumstances. Peter thus is not endorsing slavery when he urges slaves to be submissive to their masters; he is urging Christian witness. Christians are to be prepared to suffer for doing good as today’s second reading just as Christ innocently suffered. Christian living is to be on a high moral level as a testimony to the Lord.
Some scholars think that the epistle or at least parts of it originated as a Baptismal homily, calling on the newly baptized to be prepared to live out their faith in dedicated discipleship and if necessary in suffering and to live out their faith by continuing to grow in it. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word” is one of the best-known quotes from First Peter – and it supports the idea that at least parts of the letter are addressed to the newly baptized.
That phrase is the introit for the Sunday after Easter, the day when in ancient Rome the newly baptized laid aside their white baptismal garments. (In Latin it is Quasimodo geniti and gave the name to the Hunchback of Notre Dame who was deposited on that day at the steps of the great Cathedral.) In any case, we see in First Peter a call to live out our Baptism in faithful discipleship in all circumstances. We are, as St. Paul says in the Letter to the Romans, buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.
Resurrection, Baptism, Faithful discipleship – these critical Easter themes meet again and again in First Peter.
I have begun this homily with references to First Peter rather than to the Gospel of the Good Shepherd because I want to lay a foundation for reflection on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations. This day has that designation because on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Gospel in the Novus Ordo is always from John 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. The Church has accordingly set this day aside as a time to give particular attention to prayer for vocations to the priesthood, so that there will be adequate and able priests to shepherd the people of God, to help them to live out the baptismal vocation to which the First Epistle of Peter calls our attention repeatedly.
There is no question of the need. It is apparent in our own diocese. We have one ordination this year and depending on who is reporting, there will be three to five retirements. This pattern is repeated through much of the developed world, and it is a serious challenge and, indeed, a growing problem. A shortage of priests diminishes the opportunities for the Sacraments and it dilutes the critical opportunities for teaching. The problem is not limited to the Catholic Church and cannot simply be laid at the door of the requirement for celibacy. I get reports that my former denomination, the Lutherans, are having difficulty – even with married clergy and women clergy – struggling to fill all the pulpits. Some years ago Pope Benedict made the same observation about German Protestants.
And it is this situation that, I believe, makes First Peter so important on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations. For the key to vocations is not recruitment programs – nor even the marriage of clergy. The key to vocations as to every other problem that faces the Church is faithfulness. The key is discipleship. If we live out our baptismal calling. If we are prepared to suffer rejection or even persecution for the sake of the truth. If we imbibe the sincere milk of the Word by striving ever more to know and understand our faith. If we avail ourselves of confession and examine our consciences. If we see our material gifts as gifts from God and generously share them for the ministry of the Church and the service of those in need. If we are prepared to say no to the madness of the world around us, captured so painfully in the letter from Bishop Malooly inserted in today’s bulletin. If we are joyful because we remember that Jesus wins in the end. If we are people of prayer, study and contemplation. If we endeavor to die with Christ each day to sin and to rise with him to newness of life – then we will have a healthy vibrant Church that will produce ample vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life, which is also such an important leaven in the Church’s life.
So you should pray for vocations and you should do so daily. You should not hesitate to suggest the possibility to the young or to weigh it for yourself. But first of all, be the kind of disciple that First Peter urges you to be.
For you see, you are not just sheep; you are all in some measure shepherds – shepherds for yourself, for those who are near and dear, and for those whose lives intersect with yours.
I’m not making that up. The Church has always understood that it is the function of the bishop – with his priests – to ‘teach, govern, and sanctify’ the Church. It is a magnificent summary. The faith and morals of the Church need to be taught. The Church needs to be governed lest we become a random collection of lost sheep. And the Church needs to be sanctified by constant closeness to Christ – through the Sacrament and through imitating him.
This is the job of the bishop, but it is his calling as ‘episcopos’ which in Greek simply means overseer. But as the Epistle of Peter reminds us – echoing the Old Testament, especially the Book of Exodus – the whole Church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises” of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light
Through the Sacrament of Baptism we all have a share in the priesthood of Christ. And I am reminded of that every time I baptize. After the Baptism the child is anointed on the crown of the head. The only other time that happens in a Sacrament is when a bishop is ordained! It’s a powerful reminder that we are called to exercise the royal priesthood, so that we may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
He has called us out of darkness – out of the darkness of death, sin and ignorance. He has called us out of the darkness of an angry, confused, self-indulgent culture. He has called us to teach by word and example that following Christ is the better to live. He has called us to govern in the Church – first by governing ourselves and listening to the teaching of the Church, especially when it is uncomfortable – and then by contributing to its ongoing life. And he has called us to sanctify ourselves in a quest for a holier life and to sanctify others by our word and example.
When the people of God strives thus to live, their prayer for vocations will yield fruit.