My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
The Catholic Church marks the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations this Sunday, April 21. The late Pope Paul VI established this day to be observed each year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, called Good Shepherd Sunday, because our Gospel reading this day is the passage where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who "lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:1-30).
While the word "vocation" in a broad sense refers to the call that God has for each one of us, whether that would be to the vocation of holy matrimony, the priesthood, the diaconate or the consecrated religious life, the connection to Good Shepherd Sunday indicates its primary reference is to priesthood, since the word "shepherd" in Latin is "pastor."
Because the planning for this year's event was done several months in advance, the Message of the Holy Father for the 50th World Day of Prayer for Vocations was actually published by our now-emeritus Pope Benedict XVI last October. In it, the Holy Father set this anniversary celebration in the context of the Year of Faith which we are now observing, inviting Catholics all over the world to reflect on the theme, "Vocations as a sign of hope founded in faith."
In his letter, His Holiness Benedict wrote, "Vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life are born out of the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, out of sincere and confident dialogue with him, so as to enter into his will. It is necessary, therefore, to grow in the experience of faith, understood as a profound relationship with Jesus, as inner attentiveness to his voice which is heard deep within us. ... Dear young people, do not be afraid to follow him and to walk the demanding and courageous paths of charity and generous commitment! In that way you will be happy to serve, you will be witnesses of a joy that the world cannot give, you will be living flames of an infinite and eternal love, you will learn to 'give an account of the hope that is within you' (1 Pt 3:15)!"
There is a striking continuity between the words of Pope Benedict and those of Pope Francis, who also spoke of hope to young people in his General Audience this past April 3: "Young boys and girls, to you I say, bring forth this certainty to the world: the Lord is alive and walks beside us on our life's journey! Bring forth this hope, be anchored in this hope, the hope that comes from heaven! Be anchored and bring forth the hope! You witnesses of Christ, bring forth hope to this world that is aged by wars and sin! Go forward young people!"
Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, it was a great blessing on April 6 for me to ordain two young men, Steve Arisman and Seth Brown, to the diaconate, the last step in their preparation to be ordained priests next year. Next month, on May 25, I will have the privilege of ordaining Hyland Smith to be a priest for our diocese.
These ordinations are a great blessing for our diocese. If you know these men, you know that they all have very different personalities. From both the Scriptures from the example of Steve, Seth and Hyland, we see that the Lord does not have a cookie-cutter mold of person or personality whom he calls to either holy orders or to the consecrated life. Rather, he calls those whom he wills, those who will willingly and gladly "go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).
Whoever hears the call of the Lord to a life dedicated in service to the church should not be too surprised. While it is true that we are all unworthy of such a call, the Lord has ways of making use of unworthy instruments, provided they are also humble instruments, as we see repeatedly in the Scriptures. Those who begin to hear his call should seek to attune their ears all the more closely to the voice of the Lord, to that voice that speaks of peace.
Pope Benedict succinctly summarized what it means to follow Jesus: "Accepting his invitation means no longer choosing our own path. Following him means immersing our own will in the will of Jesus, truly giving him priority, giving him pride of place in every area of our lives: in the family, at work, in our personal interests, in ourselves. It means handing over our very lives to him, living in profound intimacy with him, and consequently with our brothers and sisters."
May God give us this grace. Amen.