Father Paul Stuart is the Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Dean of Studies of Corpus Christi College, Melbourne.
Pope John Paul II sends a Message to us all for the 41st World Day of Prayer for Vocations in the month of May: "Serve Christ in his Church".
The Pope knows, as we know, of the rich variety of vocations in the Church. He turns to priests in his letter at this time, however, to give special encouragement that they may all the more work and pray for successors in their role as priests.
He writes: "I stress that a necessary requirement of pastoral charity towards one's own particular Church and its future ministry is the concern which the priest should have to find, so to speak, someone to replace him in the priesthood. While it is known that God calls those whom he wills (cf. Mk 3: 13), it must nevertheless be the concern of every minister of Christ to pray with perseverance for vocations. No one better than he is able to understand the urgency of a generational exchange that guarantees generous and holy persons for the proclamation of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments."
In the last three years, the diocesan priesthood has seen an increase in both seminarians and ordinations worldwide, but not uniformly. This suggests that on a global scale, the male celibate priesthood is not as unattractive a vocation in today's world as some might suggest.
Yet, in our region of the world, Victoria and Tasmania, we face great changes to parishes as available priests for resident parish ministry decrease. In Melbourne, however, the decrease in diocesan seminarians has been arrested and is improving. If the current retention level of Melbourne seminarians is sustained at the regional seminary of Corpus Christi College, Carlton, then the Melbourne Archdiocese at least has room for optimism about the future. Pastoral planning will certainly include changes in the number of parishes in the Archdiocese, but not necessarily at the expense of a resident parish priest.
In his address to the people and clergy of Melbourne at the 1994 Chrism Mass, Archbishop Frank Little warned: "Those who plan for a priestless church shall have one." The direction of the Melbourne Vocations Office is to plan and pray for a "priestly" Church that respects the baptismal priesthood of the laity, but also zealously promotes and defends the essential and unique priesthood of the ordained.
Archbishop Denis Hart and Bishops Christopher Prowse and Mark Coleridge are giving importance and apostolic energy to efforts of evangelisation, because we face something of a "laity shortage" as much as a "priest shortage," the former influencing the latter.
"God's waiting room"
The Pope in his Message, touches on two temptations and challenges facing Catholics who are wanting "to do more with their lives," and who can't seem to find how, when, or where to direct their talents, gifts, and vocation.
Plenty of young people chew over the idea of wanting to do more with their lives in some way that helps other people. For many, this idea or desire is not necessarily channelled into or through their Church for different reasons. The challenge is to help youth and young adults make Christ the centre and the Church the vehicle, once again, for the living out of their vocation. Such a conversion or change can help the right orientation and discovery of a fulfilling life and ministry as a priest or religious.
Some may have this right orientation but for them it is "when and where" to serve as a Priest or Religious? The Pope says to them: "The Christian must be always more open to this gift, careful not to waste "the time of grace" and "the time of visitation" (cf. Lk 19: 44).
I know in my vocations ministry that many Catholics are locked in "God's waiting room," or perpetually waiting on the shore hesitating to leap into the water. They are anxious for certitude and an undeniable sign from Heaven before even beginning to embark on testing what their vocation might be.
I am pleased that among the correspondence I have received from those who attended the Hearts on Fire Vocations Congress in Melbourne last year are those who wrote that they met and saw a variety of priests and religious - more than they ever thought existed, and were helped in their own struggle with choices and decisions.
This reminds me that the more visible we priests are in those places where the next generation are, the more we can help present the priesthood as one of the many choices they have for their own vocation - a choice that originates with the Holy Spirit but which can be helped or hindered by a variety of influences.
At the recent celebration in Rome for World Youth Day, the Pope told the youth gathered he was their friend, but that he was a demanding friend. He challenged them to be faithful to Christ and to serve Christ "in" his Church.