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Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Prayer Is the Answer to the Vocation Shortage"

From the General Audience of His Holiness Pope John Paul II on October 19, 1994

"In discussing the foundation of consecrated life on the part of Jesus Christ, we mentioned the calls he extended from the beginning of his public life, generally expressed in the words: "Follow me." Jesus' care in making these appeals shows the importance he attributed to Gospel discipleship for the life of the Church. He linked that discipleship with the "counsels" of consecrated life, which he desired for his disciples as that conformation to himself which is the heart of gospel holiness (cf. Veritatis Splendor 21). In fact, history confirms that consecrated persons--priests, men and women religious, members of other institutes and similar movements--have played an essential role in the Church's expansion, as they have in her growth in holiness and love.

In the Church today, vocations to religious life have no less importance than in centuries past. Unfortunately, in many places we see that their number is insufficient for meeting the needs of communities and their apostolate. It is no exaggeration to say that for some institutes this problem has become critical, to the point of threatening their survival. Even without wishing to share the dire predictions for the not-too-distant future, it is already apparent today that, for lack of members, some communities are forced to give up works usually destined to produce abundant spiritual fruit. More generally, fewer vocations lead to a decline in the Church's active presence in society, with considerable losses in every field.

The present vocation shortage in some parts of the world is a challenge to be met with determination and courage. It is certain that Jesus Christ, who during his earthly life called many to consecrated life, is still doing so in today's world and often receives a generous, positive response, as daily experience proves. Knowing the Church's needs, he continues to extend the invitation, "Follow me," especially to young people, whom his grace makes responsive to the ideal of a life of total dedication.

In addition, the lack of workers for God's harvest was already a challenge in gospel times for Jesus himself. His example teaches us that the shortage of consecrated persons is a situation inherent in the world's condition and not only an accidental fact due to contemporary circumstances. The Gospel tells us that as he roamed through towns and villages, Jesus was moved with pity for the crowds which "were lying prostrate from exhaustion, like sheep without a shepherd" (Mt 9:36). He tried to remedy that situation by teaching them at great length (cf. Mk 6:34), but he wanted the disciples to join him in solving the problem. So he invited them, first of all, to pray: "Beg the harvest master to send out laborers to gather his harvest" (Mt 9:38). According to the context, this prayer was intended to provide people with a greater number of pastors. However, the expression "laborers for the harvest" can have a wider application, indicating everyone who works for the Church's growth. The prayer, then, also seeks to obtain a greater number of consecrated persons.

The stress put on prayer is surprising. Given God's sovereign initiative in calling, we might think that only the harvest master, independently of other intervention or cooperation, should provide a sufficient number of workers. On the contrary, Jesus insisted on the cooperation and responsibility of his followers. He also teaches us today that with prayer we can and must influence the number of vocations. The Father welcomes this prayer because he wants it and expects it, and he himself makes it effective. Whenever and wherever the vocation crisis is more serious, this prayer is all the more necessary. But it must rise to heaven in every time and place. In this area the whole Church and every Christian always have a responsibility.

This prayer must be joined to efforts to encourage an increase in the responses to the divine call. Here too we find the prime example in the Gospel. After his first contact with Jesus, Andrew brought his brother Simon to him (cf. Jn 1:42). Certainly, Jesus showed himself sovereign in his call to Simon, but on his own initiative Andrew played a decisive role in Simon's meeting with the Master. "In a way this is the heart of all the Church's pastoral work on behalf of vocations" (PDV 38).

Encouraging vocations can come from personal initiative, like Andrew's, or from collective efforts, as is done in many dioceses that have developed a vocation apostolate. This promotion of vocations does not at all aim at restricting the individual's freedom of choice regarding the direction of his own life. Therefore, this promotion avoids putting any kind of constraint or pressure on each person's decision. But it seeks to shed light on everyone's choice and to show each individual, in particular, the way opened in his or her life by the Gospel's "Follow me." Young people especially need and have a right to receive this light. On the other hand, the seeds of a vocation, especially in young people, must certainly be cultivated and strengthened. Vocations must develop and grow, which usually does not occur unless conditions favorable to this development and growth are guaranteed. This is the purpose of institutions for vocations and the various programs, meetings, retreats, prayer groups, etc., that promote the work of vocations. One can never do enough in the vocations apostolate, even though every human initiative must always be based on the conviction that, in the end, each person's vocation depends on God's sovereign decision.

A basic form of cooperation is the witness of consecrated persons themselves, which exercises a healthy, effective attraction. Experience shows that often the example of a man or woman religious has a decisive impact on the direction of a young personality which has been able to discover in that fidelity, integrity and joy the concrete example of an ideal way to live. In particular, religious communities can only attract young people by a collective witness of authentic consecration, lived in the joy of self-giving to Christ and to their brothers and sisters.

Lastly, the importance of the family should be stressed as the Christian environment in which vocations can develop and grow. Once again I invite Christian parents to pray that Christ will call one of their children to the consecrated life. The task of Christian parents is to form a family in which Gospel values are honored, cultivated and lived, and where an authentic Christian life can elevate the aspirations of the young. Because of these families the Church will continue to produce vocations. Therefore, she asks families to collaborate in answering the harvest master, who wants us all to be committed to sending new "laborers into the harvest."

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