National Vocations Awareness Week
As Vocations Director my job is threefold. Acting on behalf of the Archbishop, I am the first port of call for those men wanting to pursue a vocation to the diocesan priesthood. I meet with them, give them support and encouragement and, if there is evidence that their perception of a call is authentic and supernatural, I accompany them along the path to entering the seminary.
Secondly, I direct the work of the Vocations Office in seeking to foster a culture of vocations through the production of promotional and resource materials for schools and parishes.
Finally, I am involved on a very practical level in educating about vocations. I speak to many schools, youth and parish groups and run reflection evenings and retreats. Much vocation work is the providing of opportunities for young people to be able to listen to God speaking in their hearts.
Three initiatives stand out as having been instrumental in the origin, nurturing or confirmation of many current seminarians' and applicants' vocations. The first is "SIX30", the weekly youth hour of Eucharistic adoration in St Patrick's Cathedral which is sponsored by the archdiocesan agency, Catholic Youth Ministry. With the exception of a few weeks' summer recess, this hour of prayer has been running continuously every week since late 2000. It began as a response to the request of young people who had been to World Youth Day in that year. Since that time thousands of young people have gathered for prayer, praise and fellowship.
Like so many vocations-rich dioceses in the English-speaking world, this Melbourne school of prayer has provided young people with a place of quiet and contemplation. At the same time it has enabled them to discover a regular opportunity for prayer in their otherwise hectic lives as students and workers. Many of the young men with whom I am in contact have mentioned SIX30 as a key aid in deepening their faith and ultimately in discovering their vocation to the priesthood.
The other two initiatives are specific works of the Vocations Office. The first of these is the annual retreat which takes place during the Easter Octave. Each year around ten to fifteen men take the opportunity to spend some time away from their usual occupations in order to allow the Lord to speak in the silence of their hearts. I attended one such retreat whilst at university, and it proved to be a crucial element in recognising my vocation.
This year I began to host "Quo Vadis?" monthly recollection evenings, in order to provide young men thinking about a vocation to the priesthood with an ongoing spiritual formation program. It is not quite a pre-theologate program but rather a relaxed forum for prayer, discernment and fellowship with other men in discernment.
All the young men who are seriously inquiring into the diocesan priesthood are allocated a priest-mentor (Spiritual Director) who accompanies them during the discernment period. The purpose of this is to instil and nourish a strong priestly identity in the mind of the inquirer. Unless a priest's ministry is seen as inseparable from his being, there is a great risk - observable all too often in our own time - that young men will think that anyone can perform the work of a priest.
This kills vocations because the priest's role can seem to be devalued and even appear to be superfluous. Pope Benedict XVI said recently in this regard, "Thus, the ministry of the priest cannot be entrusted to others without damaging the authenticity of the very existence of the Church. Furthermore, how can young men desire to become priests if the role of the ordained ministry is not clearly defined and recognised" (L'Osservatore Romano, n. 21, 24 May 2006).
The fact is that the role of the priest has been clearly defined and recognised by the Church; and this, in numerous magisterial documents. Pastores Dabo Vobis and the Directory on the Life and Ministry of Priests are two that spring immediately to mind.
I am often asked what is the most difficult aspect of promoting vocations to the priesthood. Besides the perennial problem of the crisis of faith that has always accompanied the work of evangelisation, the greatest challenge seems to be the crisis in priestly identity. Pope Benedict recently told the bishops of Canada-Quebec that "the faithful cannot subscribe to the ideologies that are spreading in society today without losing their own identity."
When the abortion rate for Catholics is the same as that of the general population, then clearly we have failed to help people see any real correlation between faith and life. If people don't know what it means to be a Christian, then they will hardly be ready to put their life on the line for it. What is true of the Christian's identity is even truer of the priest's. A priest must necessarily identify himself with Christ, as priest and victim in a way that goes to the core of his being.
Therefore, one of the most encouraging signs is the very evident degree of awareness of priestly identity in the enquirers and applicants. Among the most telling questions they are asked is: What is your understanding of the Catholic Priesthood? And (naturally enough): Why do you want to be a priest?
By and large these men are acutely conscious of the uniqueness of the priest in terms of ontology and pastoral ministry. In other words they recognise that a priest is more than what he does. He is a priest by virtue of his sacramental consecration, not merely by the exercise of his ministry. They instinctively desire to be a priest as the only way they personally can fulfil the call of God in their heart to serve Him through His people.
Since beginning my assignment as Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Melbourne 18 months ago I have interviewed some 50-60 men making inquiries into the priesthood. The degree of interest and enthusiasm has been wide-ranging. Some men come to see me after a long period of discernment and more or less want to initiate the formal seminary entrance procedures.
Others, the majority, are exploring the possibility of a vocation. They want some direction as to where to begin, the prerequisites involved or general guidance as to how they might come to know God's will for them in their life.
Most of the inquirers are young, university-educated men from ordinary Catholic families, who, having undergone some type of conversion-experience or maturation of their faith, seek to dedicate their lives to the service of the Church.
A surprising number of young women have also been in contact with me through the Vocations Office enquiring into the options for religious life in Melbourne. I am always encouraged by young people's humility and generosity in seeking the Lord's plan for their lives.