Carmelite Brother Kevin Kelly of the Chicago province gives a high-five to pilgrims from Indonesia at the World Youth Day evangelization center in Kraków, Poland, in this July 29, 2016, file photo. CNS photo/Bob Roller

‘If You Build It, They Will Come’

How to create the spaces where young adults can pray and discern priesthood and religious life

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We talk a lot about praying for vocations. And it is right and just! We must pray for vocations.

Still, it’s also important to pay attention to who is doing the praying. Priests and older Catholics are often great about praying for vocations. And we need it. But while continuing to pray for vocations, we must also do what we can to create the spaces where young adults will pray. If we build the structures that facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit, priestly and religious vocations are more likely to follow.

Praying for vocations is essential. The Church in her wisdom sets aside Good Shepherd Sunday as the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Of course, our prayer that the Lord “send out laborers for his harvest” (Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2) must not be limited to a single day. We must regularly pray that young people hear and respond generously to the Lord’s call to the priesthood and religious life.

And it’s amazing what can happen when we pray! My home parish implemented a monthly holy hour for vocations. Within a few years, I joined the Jesuits, a friend joined the Benedictines and several men entered the seminary for the diocese. We must never underestimate the power of prayer.

Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of prayer comes from priests and older Catholics. Too frequently, those who could consider priestly and religious life do not have regular prayer lives from which a vocational call may arise.

Young people may be open to prayer. Perhaps they go to Mass and pray sometimes. Still, many struggle with consistency in prayer. They get distracted. They’re busy — and, if they are honest, maybe a little lazy.

Many young people not only need others’ prayers. They need help from others in building structures that encourage and include prayer.

Priests have a particular role to pray. We must continue to pray for vocations and help young people to pray. By helping to create the spaces where young adults pray, we might find the answer to our prayers for vocations.

Planting Seeds

DEACON PAUL PIERECE
Seminarians attend a weekday Mass Sept. 2, 2020, at the Neocatechumenal Way’s Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Hialeah, Florida. CNS photo/Tom Tracy

I grew up in Iowa. One of my favorite movies is “Field of Dreams.” There’s a good chance that even non-Iowans remember the iconic line, “If you build it, they will come.” (In the movie, they actually say, “If you build it, he will come,” but many people remember it as “they.”)

“If you build it, they will come” is a good motto for promoting priestly and religious vocations. Of course, Jesus Christ calls people to follow him. Vocations are the work of the Holy Spirit. But we priests have a significant role to play. Just as Paul planted, Apollos watered, “but God caused the growth” (1 Cor 3:6), we, too, play an important role. We plant vocational seeds and water the plants. We help build the structures that allow the Holy Spirit to get to work.

I was ordained a priest four years ago. Soon after ordination, I became a full-time vocation promoter for the Midwest Province of the Jesuits. After these years in the vocational trenches, I wish I had “the” vocational solution to offer you. It doesn’t work like that. There’s no silver bullet.

Still, helping to create spaces for young adults to pray is one of the most important things we can do to promote vocations. Christ continues to call young people, but there are so many distractions in our world. For those young people to hear Christ’s call, they often need some help in turning down the noise.

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INFLUENCE OF WORLD YOUTH DAY

The “Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University found that one in seven of [the] class of 2015 priests participated in a World Youth Day — more than any other Catholic gathering or festival. — Crux Now, “World Youth Day is much more than ‘Catholic Woodstock,’”July 13, 2016.

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These reflections flow from my work as a vocation promoter, but they are intended for all priests, not just those in full-time vocations ministry. We are all called to promote vocations.

One of the critical jobs of a vocation director is assessing candidates. We want to make sure that a young person has the spiritual, social and psychological foundation to thrive in formation and ministry. That important work of assessment is not the focus of this essay. For the most part, dioceses and religious communities have made major strides in the work of assessing candidates.

We also need to accompany those who come to us with an interest in priestly and religious life. Through retreats, come-and-see weekends and discernment groups, I am edified by dioceses and religious orders doing great work to accompany those people who step forward with a vocational interest.

Still, it is also critical to do the work that will expand the pool of people coming to us. We not only want to accompany and assess those who step forward and say, “I’m interested.” We also want to do the ministry that will lead to more people expressing an interest in priestly and religious life. To increase vocations, we need to help build spaces where young people can hear Christ’s call in their lives.

Initiatives

There is no simple “listicle” that one can follow to solve the vocations crisis for a particular diocese or religious order. Again, there is no silver bullet. Still, what follows are some examples of initiatives that help to plant vocational seeds. The common thread is that these efforts create spaces that help young people to pray. The Holy Spirit is in charge, but there is much that we priests can do to help the work of the Holy Spirit.

Life-changing Events

It’s no secret that World Youth Day has played a significant role in the vocation stories of many young priests and seminarians. Going to World Youth Day in college was significant in my own story. There’s nothing quite like praying with hundreds of thousands of Catholic young people from around the world.

In recent years, the conferences organized by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) have been life-changing for many. The call of many men in the seminary and religious formation today was sparked or nurtured at FOCUS’ conferences including SEEK (from “What do you seek?” Jn 1:38) or SLS (Student Leadership Summit).

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POPE FRANCIS’ WISDOM

“As with every call, the Gospel speaks of an encounter. Jesus walks by, sees those fishermen, and walks up to them. … The same thing happened when we met the person we wanted to marry, or when we first felt the attraction of a life of consecration: We were surprised by an encounter, and at that moment we glimpsed the promise of a joy capable of bringing fulfillment to our lives. That day, by the sea of Galilee, Jesus drew near to those fishermen, breaking through the ‘paralysis of routine’ (Homily for the XXII World Day for Consecrated Life, Feb. 2, 2018). And he immediately made them a promise: ‘I will make you fishers of men’ (Mk 1:17)”

— Message for the 2019 World Day of Vocations

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The National Catholic Youth Conference and Steubenville conferences similarly gather thousands of young people, get them to pray and create space for the Holy Spirit to work.

Priests play an important role in shepherding groups to these events and offering sacramental ministry. Even if a priest is not able to attend in person, he can promote such vocation-nurturing events at his parish or school.

Men’s Groups

Young adult ministry activities that include both men and women are important. Events like Theology on Tap can help to nourish the faith of men and women — and help them find a Catholic spouse!

Still, it is also important to carve out spaces where men can be with and pray with other men. Such environments also play a critical role in fostering priestly and religious vocations.

One parish with which I am familiar has a men’s group that meets on Thursday evenings. They start by praying evening prayer and then gather for food and beer. That’s critical. As they are finishing up their meal, one of the men gives a short talk on some topic of his choice, and they divide into groups to talk about the topic. They finish the evening with night prayer. It is a simple formula. It is wildly popular.

If all they did was pray, it probably would not work. Not everyone is ready to commit his Thursday night “just” to prayer. But the combination of the Liturgy of the Hours, fellowship and the discussion of some topic relevant to their lives works well for many men. This men’s group has fostered many diocesan vocations in recent years.

Accompaniment in Decision-making

NATIONAL VOCATIONS
Marianist Brothers Stephen Balletta, left, Andrew Santoriello and Ryszard Decowski speak about their vocation to religious life while being interviewed at Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

For the past few years, some fellow Jesuits and I have given the “What Should I Do?” retreat in different cities. After COVID-19 hit, we moved the retreat to Zoom and started reaching hundreds more through online retreats. The retreat includes talks based on the Rules for Discernment of St. Ignatius, time for personal reflection, the daily Examen and Mass. In-person retreats include Eucharistic adoration and confession.

This retreat tries to help young people who are looking for direction in their lives. And that’s pretty much everyone. It also creates a space for them to pray. Offering them practical wisdom and a space to reflect on how God is calling them is a fruitful way by which we can promote vocations.

Such retreats have included young men who previously considered the priesthood but had never told anyone. If the retreat was described as an event for guys thinking about the priesthood, they would not have attended. They were at an earlier stage in their discernment. By lowering the bar and creating an environment where young men and women could seek wisdom for making decisions, some of those “inactive” discerners started actively discerning priestly and religious life.

Helping Others to Pray

Most priests are already stretched thin with pastoral and administrative duties. Starting many new programs for vocation promotion is likely not possible.

Still, we already help others to pray. Rather than thinking of vocation promotion as another burden, we can consider how we might continue to create the spaces where young adults are more likely to pray. Vocations will more likely follow.

Christ still calls men to the priesthood, but young men need to pray to be able to hear that call. We priests can help create the spaces for that prayer.

If you build it, they will come.

FATHER MICHAEL ROSSMANN, SJ, is a vocation promoter for the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus. He joined the Jesuits in 2007, just after graduating from the University of Notre Dame. He was ordained a priest in 2017 and currently resides in Chicago. He can be reached at mrossmann@jesuits.org.

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Bulletin Quote for World Day of Prayer for Vocations

“World Day of Prayer will be observed on Sunday, April 25, 2021, also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday.’ The purpose of this day is to publicly fulfill the Lord’s instruction to, ‘Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest’ (cf. Mt 9:38; Lk 10:2). Please pray that young men and women hear and respond generously to the Lord’s call to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life, societies of apostolic life or secular institutes. Resources for promoting vocations can be found on the USCCB website.”

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