Forming Men of the Hearts
A Pastoral Note on a Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Each of you is called to something great.
Our first and foundational call is for every Christian to live out a life worthy of being a child of God. We received this gift at baptism, which carries with it the joy of knowing we are made in the image and likeness of God. We need not look to externals to define who we are; this is our treasured identity that no one can take away from us. Speaking of his flock, Jesus the Good Shepherd reminds us that, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn. 10:29)
Each of us is also called to his or her own specific vocation in life. God gives his children meaning and purpose by calling us to give our lives in marriage, religious life or consecrated life, or to persevere in the generous single life. Another call from Our Lord is for men to share his priesthood, to serve as spiritual fathers and shepherds to the faithful. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus asks those who seek him out the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Lk. 18:41)
This year, we are focused on asking for more priests. While it is good to pray for all vocations, a most immediate need is an increase of priestly vocations here in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The priesthood is essential for the Sacramental life of the Church; without the priest, we would be without the Eucharist, the Mass, and would have no one to hear our Confessions to reconcile us sinners with our Father.
In this Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations, Our Lord Jesus Christ is calling us to pray, invite, and encourage men to the ministerial priesthood for service in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Christ is asking us to accompany these men in forming the next generation of priests. God has not stopped calling men to serve as his shepherds; he continues to issue his call, but too many young men are struggling to hear and respond to this call. It is our duty to help them hear God’s voice and respond to his invitation with joy. May their free choice, the same offered to Mary at the Annunciation, be one that echoes her fiat: “[L]et it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk. 1:38)
Below, I will offer details about our situation and response, but first and foremost I am asking for your vital participation in prayer. Prayer is not an after-thought, but our first thought. If we pray with faith as Jesus says, “we will be able to move mountains.” (Mt. 17:20) In responding to this challenge, we pray for God to move the hearts of men to rise to the occasion and answer their call to the priesthood.
This pastoral note explains why we are embarking on a Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations: reflecting on the ministerial priesthood and its importance to the life of the Church, looking at our current situation in the Archdiocese in reference to priestly vocations, and offering to all the faithful a word of encouragement as we take up this most crucial task.
While I will speak openly about the challenge before us, the underlying message is a call to hope. God has not abandoned his Church and will certainly not leave us in our time of need. Each year we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ at Easter; this is the basis of this hope, made our own through our sharing in his death and resurrection. St. Paul reminds us that after our trials, “[H]ope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rm. 5:5) With these words in mind, we give thanks to God ahead of time for the abundant fruit that will be born from our efforts of a year focused on praying for more priestly vocations.
Jesus Christ built his Church upon the foundation of holy priests. “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18). In order that successive generations would be no poorer than those who saw the Lord and heard him in Galilee and Jerusalem, he called disciples to himself and taught them to act, teach, and love in his name. These first disciples, his Apostles, were entrusted with the mission to “make disciples of all nations.” But this was a task too great for them to accomplish on their own, so he “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” thus what they taught would not be by their own authority but in Jesus’ name.
Those Apostles in turn entrusted the gift of the Holy Spirit to act in Christ’s power to successive men who served as bishops and priests. And so this bestowal of the Holy Spirit continues down to our day by the ordination of priests, who are truly called to act “in persona Christi,“ that is “in the person of Christ.” It is by this power that when a priest says “your sins are forgiven” we are reconciled with God; when he says at Mass “this is my body…this is my blood” what looks and tastes like bread and wine are truly the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Because God has entrusted this awesome power in “earthen vessels” of priests, you and I have no less access to Jesus Christ than Mary Magdalen, Simon Peter, or Lazarus. What an awesome gift the priesthood is, not just for the man who is ordained, but for the whole Church and truly for the whole world! And because this gift is in such short supply, we must ask for more men to say “yes” to their vocation.
In recent years, we have heard so often about a shortage of priestly vocations that it is easy to lose a sense of urgency. Many parishioners have not felt the effect of this shortage, thanks to the heroic effort of pastors who give of themselves generously out of love. Many priests forego vacations, do not take a day off, and stretch themselves and their schedules to celebrate numerous Masses each weekend, while also hearing Confessions and being pulled in many other directions. In a great number of cases, pastors delay their retirements because they understand the need and truly love being priests and ministering to the flock entrusted to their care. While I am thankful for the tremendous effort and sacrifice my brother priests are willing to make, this type of ministry is unsustainable and unhealthy in the long run. A priest overextending himself can quickly experience burnout, sickness, and a strained relationship with God and his people. A balance in his life and ministry is important if a priest is to effectively serve you and our mission to unleash the Gospel in southeast Michigan.
In the simplest of terms, there are more priests retiring than priests being ordained each year, and this situation is aggravated by unforeseen events like sickness and death. This year, there were no men ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Detroit, a first in generations. If we stay this course, we project that in ten years there will be approximately half the number of priests serving in the Archdiocese than there are today. That is half the number of priests to say Mass, hear Confessions, Anoint the Sick, and do the many other things that are necessary for the life of our Church. We are at a critical point here in the Archdiocese of Detroit and there is no quick fix. The time to form a man for the priesthood is seven to eight years in the seminary; if we do not act immediately, we will have significantly fewer priests than we have parishes, and the health of our parishes communities and our spiritual lives will be substantially affected. We must retain our sense of urgency as we pray fervently this year and beyond for an increase in priestly vocations in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Nonetheless, this letter is not an invitation for us to stew in anxiety, but rather is a call to embrace our challenge with faith and act decisively to remedy the problem by our prayers and deeds. Our move to Families of Parishes is one of the primary ways we are securing the future of the Church and her mission. We know that in Christ, we have already won – yet, as we trust in the goodness of the Lord, we must continue to do our part by calling forth a new generation of priests.
My brothers, do not underestimate the profound impact you have on young men who have a vocation to the priesthood. Your example of devotion, holy life, fervent prayers, and genuine invitation will inspire many to serve “in the person of Christ.” The 2022 report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. states that 71 percent of this year’s diocesan ordination class were asked to consider the priesthood by their parish priest. We need to invest time to invite men into the brotherhood we share in Christ. With a generation so desperately wanting to belong, what better response than to bring them into our ranks to which God has called them. I urge you not to see this as one more thing placed upon your busy schedule, but rather something of crucial importance that will bring life to you, the man discerning, and the Church at large. Who is going to respond if we do not invite them to hear God’s call?
Pray fervently that men will have the courage to say “yes” to their call. I thank you for your full and active participation as you pray our prayer for priestly vocations at every weekend Mass, partake in Holy Hours, fast, and pray the Rosary together. Yet, we can do more than pray. Please remember that a vocation to the priesthood is carried and supported by the community one comes from. As a man is called forth by God, God uses your voices to invite these men who worship and pray with you. Now is the time to be bold in encouraging men you see in church. Often, a man entering seminary has been asked by many people from his community if he has ever considered the priesthood. These are little, but important, confirmations that encourage him to take the next step.
Our Catholic schools and religious education programs help to form our children to love God and consider what sort of life God is calling them to live for his glory. Do not hesitate to talk about vocations in class and develop unique ways to help children discover their vocations in the various activities and assignments they are given. You may even consider having a theme during the next academic year that specifically highlights vocations, especially the priesthood.
Do not be afraid! Parents want what is best for their sons: a fulfilling life that brings joy and meaning in this world and happiness in the next. Some men entering seminary, however, must sadly do so without the support of those who love them. Does not God, who knew us before we were knit in the womb of our mothers, know our sons best? Becoming a priest does not mean a son will be lost to you; he will continue to be an integral part of your family as he also becomes part of the wider family of the Church as “Father.” Talk to your sons at a young age about being open to the possibilities of all vocations, but especially to the vocation to the priesthood. When speaking about what they might want to be when they grow up, ask what God is asking of them. Find new ways to pray with your family – consider using 52 Sundays and other resources shared by the Archdiocese and your parish. Lastly, volunteering as a family in your parish can be an instrumental way to bond and learn the joy of serving.
The Church needs you more than ever! Will you rise to the challenge? Men called to the priesthood are not called to a life of ease. Like our Lord, they are called to one of sacrifice. This is the great paradox of discipleship: that when we lose our life for him and the Gospel, we gain it! (Mk. 35) Do not worry that you are not perfect, because Jesus is not calling the perfect – take heart and look at the early example of the Apostles. Rather, he calls those who are faithful and put their trust in his strength, not their own. This abandonment is born first out of love. A vocation is so much more than an occupation; it is a relationship. A man must realize that he is loved by God and he must respond to that love by an act of offering and sacrifice. Just as in any relationship of love, it can only grow by spending time with the beloved. Spend time with Jesus in both formal and informal ways. Mass is a great way to encounter him as we enter into the mystery of Christ offering himself on the cross. It is at Mass that we discover the depths of his love for us. Adoration is a perfect way to spend quality time before Jesus in the Eucharist, to quiet ourselves from the many distractions of our modern world and listen to the one that has much he longs to say to us. This silent prayer with Jesus in the Eucharist is one of the best ways to discover your vocation. You can also seek to serve at Mass to see more closely what a priest does during the Eucharistic celebration. Make efforts to serve Jesus in the poor. A man called by God to become a priest will cultivate a heart that sees Jesus in all the poor. A man must grow in the virtue of helping those less fortunate than himself. Lastly, pray the Rosary, for the Blessed Mother is the safest and surest path to her Son and your vocation. In a very real way, she is the mother of us all, but especially of her priests who act in the person of Christ, her Son.
As we begin our Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations, questions may arise as to what changes we can make in our parishes to facilitate a greater response. Moving toward concluding this message, I offer a few ways we can collectively enter into this most urgent task:
The Office of Priestly Vocations is making available many more resources for parishes, schools, religious education programs, families, and individuals for this year, and the years to come. They can be found at www.prayforvocations.com.
“When he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.’” (Mt. 9:36-37) Together, let us spend this year in prayer asking the Lord to send us shepherds after his own heart. Trusting in God always, we give thanks ahead of time for the abundant harvest that will come from this Year of Prayer for Priestly Vocations.
In Christ the Good Shepherd,
The Most Reverend Allen H. Vigneron
Archbishop of Detroit