I think it proves God’s sense of timing that whenever the world most bitterly criticizes the Church, good men step forward to rekindle her witness.  The past decade has been difficult for Catholics from every walk of life, including priests.  But it’s not the first time in Church history, nor will it be the last, that God has used failure and suffering to restore the heart of Catholic life.  That renewal hinges in a special way on our priests.

Here in Philadelphia we’re blessed with one of the great seminaries of the United States: St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.  The men who study there for the priesthood, and those who teach them, deserve our gratitude for their dedication, joy and unselfishness.  They also need our support and prayers for the work of revivifying Catholic life that lies ahead.  So it’s a good moment to take stock of our identity as a community of faith.

As young men consider the future course of their lives this week, and the adventure of service and love that lies at the heart of the priesthood in the year ahead, let’s all of us remember in a special way to keep them in our daily prayers, and to sustain them by the witness of our own Christian discipleship.

The Church is not just a collection of individuals gathered around a sacred text. She’s a community – a community rooted both in God’s Word and in sacrament.

No matter how many other things bear good fruit for the Gospel in our day, there is no ongoing presence of Jesus Christ in the world without the Church; there is no Church without the Eucharist; and there is no Eucharist without the priest.

As a result, in every generation, we always need good priests: well-formed men of hope and courage; men who love Jesus Christ, love the Church and are eager to serve God’s people. And – equally important – we need a community of believers that will encourage these men, and support them as a family in their sacrifices.

The patron saint of parish priests is the great French “Cure of Ars,” John Vianney, who had a tremendous esteem for the priesthood.  Whenever others offered him compliments or praised his holiness, he always deflected the praise away from his own person and toward the office of the priest.

He once said that “If we really understood the priest on earth, we would die not of fright but of love. … The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”

As with married life, priesthood is a serious choice in response to God’s call. It has life-changing consequences. But – again like married life – it’s not merely life-changing, but life-giving. When genuinely given over to Christ, priesthood is a life of joy, courage, freedom and fraternity; a life of fruitfulness and meaning.

And these things far outweigh its challenges.

This week, January 13-19, is the 2013 National Vocations Awareness Week.  But in reality, every week should begin and end with our prayers for more good vocations, especially to the priesthood.   In the year ahead, I ask the priests of Philadelphia, who already serve the Lord and his Church so well, to encourage the young men of their parishes to consider a priestly vocation, and to communicate the happiness they have experienced in their own priestly ministry.

I also ask the Catholic people of southeast Pennsylvania to pray daily for vocations to the priesthood.  God most easily answers our prayers when we actively seek to cooperate with his will. So I also urge parents to cultivate a love for the Church and her sacraments in their children.

I especially urge them to model their own love for the priesthood by supporting our priests in daily parish life, and by creating an environment in their homes where vocations to the priesthood are encouraged, discussed, and received by children as a great and holy personal choice.

Every Christian life is lived in communion and on mission.  The Church is an ecology of love. She is most fruitful when her members love well.

As young men consider the future course of their lives this week, and the adventure of service and love that lies at the heart of the priesthood in the year ahead, let’s all of us remember in a special way to keep them in our daily prayers, and to sustain them by the witness of our own Christian discipleship.