In a small midwestern town, a woman calls out for her son. When he reports to her, she hands him a freshly-baked loaf of bread and tells him to bring it to a retired priest who lives in town. He obeys his mother’s orders and brings the homemade bread to the priest.
At the priest’s residence, the young man is invited inside for a chat. “You’re just the person I was wanting to talk to,” the priest tells the young man. Once inside, the priests asks, “Where do priests come from?”
The young man is taken back by such a bizarre question. “Uh, I don’t know,” he mutters.
“Can you grow one in a garden?” the priest asks.
“No,” the young man responds.
“Can you buy one in a store?”
“No,” the young man answers, still unsure of what is happening.
“Well, where do priests come from?”
“I don’t know, Father.”
“I tell you where priests come from. They come from families, holy families, like yours.”
The above story is true, and the young man in the story has been a priest for 34 years. To me, this story highlights the sad fact that many misunderstand how vocations come about and even what a vocation is.
What Is a Vocation?
The Pocket Catholic Dictionary defines vocations as “A call from God to a distinctive state of life, in which the person can reach holiness. The Second Vatican Council made it plain that there is a ‘universal call [vocatio] to holiness in the Church’ (Lumen Gentium, 39).” You might have noticed that the words “priest” and “nun” are not used in that definition. This is because marriage is a vocation, too, and a really important one.
Priests Are Not Recruited
When you see a holy young man, what is you first reaction? In my personal experience, I have found that many people upon noticing that a young man is eagerly striving for holiness will automatically assume he needs to become a priest and will bluntly tell him so. Experiences differ, I realize. When people have told me they think I should be a priest, I feel less inclined to be a priest. Their efforts to recruit had the exact opposite of their intended effect. Maybe that’s just me, though. Perhaps, there is a multitude of young men out there who are just waiting for a random person who knows nothing about them to walk up to them and tell them they should be a priest. More likely, though, the best approach would to be to encourage them to continue to pursue holiness. Someone who is truly pursuing holiness will not willingly defy God’s will for their life.
Pushing Holy Young People into the Priesthood or Religious May Cause a Shortage of Priests
If we push all of the holy, young persons into a seminary or a convent, we will run out of young, holy people. When we run out of young, holy people, we will have no one left to recruit to the priesthood or religious life. Holy, young people need to reproduce so that more holy people can enter the world. That holy, young man you see at Mass could one day have two sons who become priests, so do not be so quick to tell him he needs to become a priest.
Vocations Are Nurtured
How do we get priests if we can’t recruit them? We start before the future priest is even born. We teach those getting married the importance of family life. Those entering the vocation of marriage ought to be instructed about the necessity of creating a home environment where holiness can flourish and discernment of all vocations is encouraged. Why are there separate diocesan offices for vocations and for marriage and family life? A holy family will produce vocations. To me, these offices have overlapping missions. If it were up to me (it’s not, but, hey, a guy can dream…), my diocesan’s vocations office would be a subset within the office for marriage and family life.