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Sermon on Priestly Vocations

By Father Kyle

“What is a priest! A man who holds the place of God – a man who is invested with all the powers of God…When the priest remits sins, he does not say, ‘God pardons you’; he says, ‘I absolve you.’ At the Consecration, he does not say, ‘This is the Body of our Lord’; he says, ‘This is My Body.’ Oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in Heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love…The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

These beautiful words of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, are taken from a larger reflection he wrote on the priesthood, and I read them years ago in their entirety to the men of the Serra Club in Erie, an organization in the Church that focuses on promoting priestly vocations. I also used awe-inspiring language of my own to convey to them the importance of their mission and work as Serrans and to convey to them the beauty, power, and glory of the priesthood. After my talk, one of the Serrans came up to me, thanked me, and told me that he had never heard anyone speak about the priesthood in that way. That Serran was the father of a priest. I was glad to hear that he learned something about his son’s vocation and was now more inspired by it, but I was saddened and disheartened to hear that he, a member of the Serra Club and the father of a priest, had never heard anyone speak about the priesthood with such reverence and love. How can the Church, how can our diocese, ever hope to have more priests when many in the Church, many in our diocese, seldom even talk about the priesthood in our parishes, schools, and other institutions, and when they do, often talk about in such a way that waters it down and makes little of it?

Today marks the beginning of what the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has designated as National Vocations Awareness Week, and I surmise that in many places in our diocese, it probably receives about as much attention as some goofy secular observance such as National Taco Day. (Of course, there is more than one vocation in the Church, but being a priest myself and facing a severe shortage of priests, I thought I would focus today on the priesthood.) On some level, I would like to think that most Catholics are aware that there is a very serious, growing shortage of priests. Despite this awareness, the shortage continues to worsen, given that over 40 percent of the priests in our diocese are 65 years or older and that we only have a handful of seminarians. Why? Why is it getting worse?

Well, there are many reasons why, but at the core, we have a shortage because many, both laity and clergy alike, do not really care about it and think that it will have no real consequences for their parish. Many in our diocese and across the universal Church do not have much esteem or love for the priesthood, even though we all depend on it for true life here on earth and eternal life in the heavenly kingdom. Again, St. John Vianney says, “The other benefits of God would be of no avail to us without the priest. What would be the use of a house full of gold if you had nobody to open you the door! The priest has the key of the heavenly treasures; it is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good God, the distributor of His wealth. Without the priest, the Death and Passion of our Lord would be of no avail.”

Unfortunately, we human beings take many of God’s great gifts for granted, including the priesthood, and unfortunately, we live in a culture where no one wants to commit to anything, where the priestly promises of celibacy, obedience, and a simple life go against everything that many young men are taught in school and in the home. It is a life of great sacrifice that is especially conformed to the Lord’s cross, but there is great glory in this, and I can say that it is an awesome and joy-filled life of heroic importance. Many of my brother priests and I would say that we would not trade the gift of our priesthood for anything in the whole world, but we need to actually say that to our people and show that to them in the way we conduct our Sacred Ministry. When someone gives you a really great gift, you want to show it off to other people. Doing so gives honor to the giver and shows your gratitude to him or her. The priesthood is a gift beyond words, and so we priests, on our part, should be showing it off to our people. We should be bragging about God’s love for us and for you in giving us this supernatural identity and ministry for your sakes. We should be unashamed and unafraid of talking about the true, incredible nature of the Sacrament we have been given in our ordination. All the members of the Church should be more fervent and constant in their prayers for vocations to the priesthood, both in private prayer and in public prayer, which is why, as I’m sure you have noticed, I often include an intercession for priestly and religious vocations in the Sunday Masses that I offer. All of us should be encouraging and supporting young men in our families who are thinking about seminary and the priesthood. We should encourage them to think about it and pray about it in the first place, whether they ultimately have this calling or not.

In the end, the fact is: We shouldn’t need to have a designated week on the calendar for National Vocations Awareness. We should be aware of vocations to the priesthood every day of the year, all the time, and our awareness must lead to action, especially because of the severity of the priest shortage and all that our priests and future priests are up against in our culture. We need your prayers, and so do all those who are called to share in the gift we’ve been given. Rather than focusing on vain band-aids for the gaping wound of the shortage, like proposing women’s ordinations, married priests, or greater lay governance in the Church, we need to focus on and promote what the priesthood really is, and why, in the plan of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is so necessary for the life of the Church and for our eternal salvation. What is more, there are no substitutes for the priest, no one else who can take his place. Notwithstanding the dignity and importance of the diaconate and the apostolate of the laity, deacons and lay people cannot make up for fewer priests, and we need not have so few priests in the first place. I have said before, “If people really knew what the Sacrifice of the Mass is, then we would not have enough room in our churches for the droves who would come to witness it and partake in it.” If people really knew what the priesthood is and how sublime an expression of God’s infinite love for us it is, then there would not be enough room in all the seminaries of the world to house all the men who would be pursuing this heavenly calling with great excitement and zeal.

Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest, make us more aware of and give us a greater love for this wondrous gift of the Sacred Priesthood, and move us more each day to draw forward and nourish the priestly vocations you have already provided for us in such loving abundance. St. John Vianney, pray for us.

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