Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee when He came across two brothers, the fishermen Simon and Andrew. He asked them to leave behind their livelihoods and to become His disciples. They immediately dropped their nets.
Afterward, Jesus returned home to Capernaum. There he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. "Follow me," Jesus said. Matthew (who was called Levi) left his denarii and he, too, joined Jesus' growing band of followers.
The Lord sent His apostles in twos to herd the lost sheep of Israel; eventually they brought God's plan of salvation to all nations. God does the same today, by asking men to serve him as priests and women to enter the convent. Moved with compassion for those in need, Jesus beseeched His disciples to pray that more men and women would accept this generous invitation to labor in the fields of the Lord (Lk 10:2).
The Gospels say the apostles left their jobs and families immediately. Jesus promised them a special place in His kingdom but first they had to renounce their former lives.
Today things are different. Men and women don't seem as eager to give up everything and follow Christ as a priest or religious sister. It isn't that God isn't asking us to serve Him; we aren't listening as closely anymore. Worldly occupations — marriage, family, a lucrative career — eclipse the call. Our hyper-selfish culture promises money, fame, power, and pleasure. Jesus could have had this, too, but He renounced Satan and all his pomp for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 4:10c).
This Sunday, April 29, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is the 44th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In a recent address, Pope Benedict XVI called on families to encourage their children to consider priesthood and religious life, not through prayer alone but by apostolic works: "God has always chosen some individuals to work with him in a more direct way," the Holy Father said. "In order to foster vocations, therefore, it is important that pastoral activity be attentive to the mystery of the Church."
The need for priests and religious is palpable. The Center for Applied Research of the Apostolate says the number of priests has declined since 1965 even as the Church in the United States continues to grow. In the same time, the number of parishes without a resident priest has more than tripled, from 550 in 1965 to 3,200 in 2005.
Ask any pastor why vocations are down and he will tell you that Catholic parents no longer encourage their sons to enter seminary or their daughters to enter a convent. It's just not "cool" anymore. American families are shrinking, and many Catholics no longer believe that a man or woman's highest calling is to devote themselves to help build Christ's Church, as did the first apostles 2,000 years ago.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap, Archbishop of Boston, said priests have a special responsibility to promote vocations. "If we fail to inspire a new generation of believes, we will all suffer the consequences," he told an interviewer this year.
John Paul the Great, throughout his pontificate, unflaggingly promoted vocations to priesthood and religious life. He often used his own vocation as an example. (Could there be a better one?) In an address to Catholic parents, he once said, "A vocation touches the very roots of the human soul. It is the very interior calling of God directed to the person: to the unique and irreplaceable person."
Simply put, our faith teaches that God creates each of us for a specific purpose. Some of us are meant to be parents and spouses; some are called to the single life; others are set apart by God for unique roles in the Church.
Jeremiah knew this. His own prophetic writings testify God destined him to preach repentance to the Israelites (Jer 1:5). Paul also believed this. His conversion near Damascus was so moving and dramatic he spent three years afterward in Arabia trying to understand the nature of the experience (Acts 9:1-9; Gal 1:17). Now a "slave to Christ," Paul became an ardent supporter of vocations, counseling Timothy and Titus, two young pastors of the early Church, through his apostolic writings.
Then there was Samuel. Old Testament law mandated that all first-born males be consecrated to God. In keeping with tradition, Hannah his mother sent him to Eli, who put the youth to work in the temple. One night Samuel couldn't sleep and Eli determined the Lord was calling the boy (1 Sam 3:8). In the New Testament the mother of James and John was so eager for her sons to serve Jesus she wanted them to sit beside him on his heavenly throne. Faithful family members recognized the call within their children and helped them discern their vocations.
The decrease in vocations represents a lack of faith. Parents can change this by impressing upon their children the joy and fulfillment they will receive by service in God's Church. Adults can become Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and Lectors and encourage their sons and daughters to serve at the altar and sing in the choir. The Eucharist, the source and summit of life, is also the wellspring of a vocation.
Standing beside the priest at the altar during consecration, children can more clearly discern God's call to consecrated service. Whoever has ears ought to hear.