In what was perhaps his strongest words yet on vocations, Pope Francis, at an audience with religious sisters and brothers at the conclusion of the Year for Consecrated Life, said, “Why is the womb of consecrated life becoming so sterile?… Some congregations experiment with ‘artificial insemination’… What do they do?… They welcome … ‘Yes come, come, come’… And then there are problems… We must be serious about whom we take… We must clearly distinguish if it is a real vocation, and help it to grow.”
Vocations to priesthood and consecrated life are essential to the life of the Church. Without the priest, there is no one to celebrate Mass, to absolve sins in the sacrament of penance, to offer the anointing of the sick, and to give life to the People of God as “fathers” in the Church. Without the myriad, unsung, apostolic activity of the religious sister and brother, the People of God would certainly suffer.
The role of the priest and the religious is more than just a function. It is not so much about what a priest does, it is all about who a priest is. At his ordination, the priest is ontologically changed, to the core of his being. He is transfixed, permanently, to Christ the High Priest.
No matter what he is doing, he is always a priest. This failure to recall that priesthood is primarily ontological, not functional, to think that a man is only a priest when he is offering his sacramental services, in many cases led to scandal and destruction in the Church. A priest is never “off duty.” He is always a priest, whether he is offering Mass or watching the Super Bowl. The priest, in his promises on his ordination day, namely perpetual celibacy, obedience to his bishop, and daily prayer for the Church, takes on a very serious responsibility, one that involves the sake of his soul and the souls of those of whom he’s been commanded to shepherd.
Likewise, the religious sister and brother is a consecrated person. She or he is set apart, consecrated, “made holy,” then given back to the People of God, with whom she or he is united by baptism. In following the charism of her or his particular order, in the living out of their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the religious calls each of us back to the “original innocence” in which the Lord created us.
To choose a vocation like this is not an easy task. And it is not simply enough for an individual to be ready and willing to enter these lives. It involves two things: first, discernment on the part of the person being called and second, formation of the individual who is open and docile.
In terms of formation, note that it takes years for a man to become a priest, not only of academic studies – although these are essential and can never be downplayed – but also pastoral formation, human formation in affective maturity, and spiritual formation. It takes a minimum of six years to be ordained a priest because it’s not so much about learning what to do at Mass and the sacraments, it’s all about transforming one’s self more and more into the Person of Jesus.
The same is true for a religious. It takes years of pre-postulancy, postulancy, novitiate, temporary vows, final solemn vows and then a life of ongoing formation. It’s not simply learning to do the apostolic work of a particular religious congregation and then being sent out to do it.
Pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, not just for more religious and priests, but for ones that are happy, healthy, holy ones that “think with the Church.” Formation for the priesthood, for the religious life, takes a long time, but please God, the end results are living witnesses to the love of the Lord in their lives.