By Cardinal Justin Rigali
About six months ago, on the occasion of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, I wrote about the various religious vocations of the consecrated life of men and women. This week, as we prepare for Vocation Awareness Week in the Archdiocese, I will focus upon priestly vocations in the Christian community.
The Eucharist is the source of the Church’s life
The Church constantly reminds all of us that our very life as Christians comes to us through the Eucharist. This is true of the child who receives Jesus for the first time at his or her First Holy Communion, for the person receiving Jesus as Viaticum, food for the journey to Heaven at the end of this earthly life, and every Christian in between.
It may be interesting to note that in her devotional life, the Church designates the month of January as a time to recall the Holy Name of Jesus in a special way. In the prayers of the Litany of the Holy Name, we are reminded that Jesus is the source of life for every faithful Christian in every vocation. He is spoken of as: “example of virtues, father of the poor, treasure of the faithful, good Shepherd, eternal wisdom, our way and our life, strength of martyrs, light of confessors, purity of virgins and crown of Saints.” If all of this is true, which it certainly is, then we all need Jesus as our model and our strength. In the Eucharist, He who is our model and strength actually comes to us. Therefore, the Eucharist, as has been stated so many times, is not only indispensable for the life of the Church but also for the life of each inspanidual Christian in every vocation.
Now, in God’s plan, this gift of the Eucharist comes to us through the Sacrifice of the Mass, during which the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present once again upon our altars in a real but unbloody way. At the Last Supper, Jesus entrusted the celebration of this mystery to the Apostles, who were the first priests, and to their successors in the Church that He founded to continue His work until the end of time. Since the Eucharist, which is the very life of the Church and of every Christian, is linked to the mystery of the priesthood for its celebration, we can see why the vocation of some Christians to the ministry of the sacramental priesthood is vital for the life of the Church and its members.
A command of Jesus: prayer for priestly vocations
While we cannot ignore periods in the history of the Church when a response to priestly vocations is not what it should be, we must also keep in mind two important factors: Jesus Himself, at the very beginning of the Church, lamented the lack of workers in His vineyard and He then called for prayer to confront this reality. He said: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” (Matthew 9:37-38).
In fund-raising, the expression is sometimes used: “Make the ask.” In other words, take upon yourself the responsibility of asking someone for what is needed in a particular context at a particular time. We can say that Jesus is telling us to ask His Father for the gift of generous hearts to respond to the call to work in His vineyard. We do this by prayer, as Jesus commands us. This is a responsibility of every Christian because every Christian needs the life of Jesus in the Eucharist which, according to God’s plan, comes to us through the Catholic priesthood.
Pope Paul VI said: “The responsibility for spreading the saving Gospel belongs to everyone – to all those who have received it! The missionary duty concerns the whole body of the Church; in different ways and in different degrees, it is true, but we must all be united in carrying out this duty. Now let the conscience of every believer ask himself: Have I carried out my missionary duty? Prayer is the first way of fulfilling this duty” (Angelus, 23 October 1977).
This is what we will be doing in a special way during Vocation Awareness Week, which will be celebrated throughout the Archdiocese from Saturday, Jan. 9 to Sunday, Jan. 17. I have asked that all parishes and institutions within the Archdiocese celebrate this week with prayer for an increase in priestly vocations. This will include a Novena Prayer to be recited prior to all the Masses, the Annual Evening for Young Men at the Seminary, during which I will lead young men of high school age in an evening of prayer, and an Archdiocesan Day of Eucharistic Adoration on Monday, Jan. 11 for an increase in priestly vocations, culminating in a Holy Hour from 7 to 8 p.m. in each Parish.
I would like to note that this week of intense prayer for priestly vocations in the Archdiocese involves in a special way the priests themselves, as well as my Auxiliary Bishops and myself as the Archbishop of Philadelphia.
This is a reminder of the words of Saint Paul, who writes: “Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal patiently with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people” (Hebrews 5:1-3).
In his great Encyclical on the Sacred Liturgy, Pope Pius XII wrote that Jesus desired that “the priestly life which the spanine Redeemer had begun in his mortal body by his prayers and sacrifice should not cease. He willed it to continue unceasingly through the ages in his mystical body, which is the Church; and therefore he instituted a visible priesthood to offer everywhere a clean oblation (cf. Malachy 1:1), so that all people all over the world, being spanerted from sin, might serve God conscientiously, and of their own free will” (Mediator Dei, 1).
The priest’s role does not separate him from the people of God. He comes from their midst, he serves them and he is himself in need of the grace that is given through him. The priest also survives in his own Christian life by being fed with the very Eucharist he brings to the people. Likewise, he draws closer to Jesus by adoring Him continuously present in the Blessed Sacrament, which the priest has made present, whether in the tabernacle or exposed on the Altar in a more solemn manner. This is why a very important part of this week of awareness for priestly vocations is the day of Eucharistic Adoration on Jan. 11.
Eucharistic adoration prolongs the Eucharistic activity of Christ in the Mass and leads us back to it. Before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, we will all pray then the “Lord of the harvest” to send laborers into His vineyard. The priest also prays for this intention, not merely because he needs “helpers,” but because he too needs the “help” of the spanine grace which Jesus wills to come to us through the ministerial priesthood.
I ask that you join in the great response to Jesus’ command to pray for laborers for His harvest. In a special way, I ask those who are sick or suffering and who may not be able to go to their parish churches, to offer their sufferings and prayers for this intention. In this way, all of us, priests and people, can pray not merely for “helpers” but for the gift of generous young men to respond to the call of Jesus to serve Him in an intimate way as His priests, for the service of the entire People of God.
7 January 2009