Why does a man become a priest? Because he saw a clever poster that says, “Consider a White Collar Job”? Because someone gave him a brochure about priesthood? In God's economy of grace, these things can help, but there's something deeper going on in the hearts of would-be seminarians.
This theme was expanded by a well-reasoned article by Fr. Damien Ferrence, a priest of the Diocese of Cleveland. Provocatively titled “Why Vocation Programs Don't Work,” the piece challenges Catholics to re-think their approach to reaching young men about the priesthood. Fr. Ferrence's logic is as follows:
Millions of dollars have been spent by Vocation Offices with only mildly positive results.
The root of our current vocation problem is a lack of discipleship, and therefore the remedy is to make more disciples.
The best way to make disciples is personal witness—the example of good spouses and good priests.
Thus we need to re-evaluate every parish and diocesan program on the basis of what they do to create disciples.
The main point should be obvious—by and large, men only consider the priesthood after they establish an authentic relationship with Jesus. This thesis is corroborated repeatedly by seminary rectors who read the autobiographies of seminarians. Before seminary, these men had a conversion on a retreat; they fell in love with service on a mission trip; they had a profound encounter with Jesus during Mass one Sunday, etc.
Just as the first men who followed Jesus were attracted to Him by sincere faith, so will be each generation of men who are called to follow Him in the priesthood.
But the title of Fr Ferrence's article should not deflate the morale of those who do, in fact, help with programs to promote vocations. Rather, it should re-focus our energies in the right direction.
Let's say, for example, that you help run a vocation essay contest for middle-school students. Topics in the past included, “What are your favorite things about Fr. Smith?” and “Why is a priest's job so important?” To be sure, these are good topics that can get students thinking. But keeping in mind the primacy of discipleship, you may consider tweaking this year's contest with a topic like, “Write a fictional story about a young men who encounters Jesus and decides to go to seminary.”
Yes, a simple vocation essay contest helps. Yes, we need vocation posters and prayer cards. Yes, we need to encourage prayer for vocations. In all these efforts, though, let's remember Jesus' command, “Go and make disciples.”
Thank you for helping promote vocations in the Diocese of Ogdensburg! Your work and prayers are greatly appreciated. ________
If you know a young man who is interested in the priesthood, please encourage him to contact us. Likewise, if you are aware of a young woman or man who is discerning religious life, please send them our way. We'll help connect them with respective religious communities. And of course, let us keep praying for each other and for all holy vocations in the Church.