There was a time in the Archdiocese of Louisville when any conversation about vocations — or the need for increased vocations — was usually held quietly, in reserved and even tones.
There was little cause for optimism. Stories in news media outlets, both local and national, noted the declining numbers of men joining the priesthood and the scarcity of women turning to religious life.
Seminarians, even just a dozen or so years ago, weren’t all that numerous. The archdiocese had only three or so people in formation in days past, and for a while there was but one ordination a year — if that.
Today all the problems haven’t been solved, all the questions answered. But there’s no reason to keep quiet, to be reserved, about the future of vocations in the Archdiocese of Louisville now. There are 17 men in various stages of their education as seminarians now, and there is afoot in the archdiocese what Father Jeffrey P. Shooner, director of the Vocation Office, calls “a growing awareness” of both the need for vocations and an awareness of the increasing numbers.
It hasn’t happened by accident, or as a result of some cyclical happenstance.
The increase in vocations is the work of prayer in parishes, schools and homes. It’s happened because of the work of Father Shooner and those who preceded him in his post. Numbers have grown because of the work in the Vocation Office of Linda Banker, associate director for formation and Carrie Williamson, associate director of vocations.
It has happened because of an intentional effort that grew out of archdiocese planning and activity, out of a recognition of need and a fervent effort to meet it. When the leadership of the archdiocese began its planning process years ago — when the creation of demographic studies and planning studies became the norm — what grew from those efforts was a conscious decision to address the need for additional vocations.
People throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville agreed to ask young men and women about their interest in vocations. We all have one, of course; some of us have a role in the ministry of the church that doesn’t call us into the priesthood or into religious communities. But we recognize we have a “call” nonetheless.
But within the archdiocese there has been that growing awareness of the need to ask people about their perception of God’s purpose for their lives. There’s an openness to the question, Father Shooner said last week. And there has developed over the years a sense of cooperation and collaboration about vocations.
Last week was Vocations Awareness Week in the archdiocese. This year, the World Day of Prayer for Vocations will be observed on April 21. Pope Benedict XVI has already released his message for that celebration, and in it he reminds people that God’s love, while unconditional, demands that everyone ask themselves how they will live their gift of life.
Accepting Jesus’s invitation to “Come, follow me” means no longer choosing one’s own path, but rather “immersing our own will in the will of Jesus, truly giving him priority, giving him pride of place in every area of our lives,” the pope said in a story released by Catholic News Service.
Vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, the pope noted, “are born out of the experience of a personal encounter with Christ, out of sincere and confident dialogue with him” and through prayer and the Sacraments, he added.
The pope said young people must bypass “superficial and ephemeral” pursuits and cultivate a real desire “for what is truly worthy, for lofty objectives, radical choices, service to others in imitation of Jesus.”
In another CNS story, the pope called on priests “to accompany young people as ‘companions on the journey,’ helping them, on life’s often tortuous and difficult path, to recognize Christ, the way, the truth and the life, telling them with Gospel courage how beautiful it is to serve God, the Christian community and one’s brothers and sisters.”
It is a message that has been taken to heart in the archdiocese by all who work for vocations. And it has resulted in a dramatic change of direction in vocation numbers for the local church.
Those numbers aren’t as high as we’d all like them to be — Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz is always quick to note that. But they are a significant notch above where they once were.
“We really have a very positive story to tell,” Father Shooner said. “What God is doing in the archdiocese and how people are responding to it is a real cause for optimism.”