Seminarians learn how to prune young apple trees at an orchard in Prosser, Wash., from a migrant worker May 29, their first day in a summer migrant ministry program. All seminarians from the Diocese of Yakima are required to work in the agricultural fields with migrant laborers as part of their formation. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth) See SEMINARIANS-MIGRANTS-YAKIMA Oct. 11, 2018.

Vocational Evangelization

Helping young people open their hearts to the call of the Holy Spirit

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I still clearly remember a homily about vocational discernment from my college seminary days.

A Capuchin friar, who was a beloved spiritual director and confessor among the men, shared a story about a young high school woman he knew. When entering her senior year, she was invited on an overseas mission trip by some of the religious sisters of her Catholic high school to encounter their missionary sisters and apostolates. After an intense couple of weeks witnessing the prayer, community and ministry of these sisters, the young lady came home with an emerging desire to join these religious after high school.

She shared this desire with her parents — who were receptive, but skeptical — and they asked her to take additional time to assess, knowing her senior year would have many formative experiences, as well as the promise of college awaiting her. As the year came to an end, the young woman approached her parents again and expressed her consistent, hopeful desire to begin religious formation.

A long conversation took place, at the end of which her father gently said to her: “Honey, your mom and I raised you expecting you would become a respectable Christian. … I guess mom and I were never prepared for you wanting to become a real one.”

The Capuchin friar looked at us and said, “True story.” He shared that the young lady did indeed enter formation with the religious order, and then he encouraged us into the next step of risking to seek God’s plan and providence.

As I look back, remembering my brothers who also heard that homily, many of us are now priests, and some who I recently retold the story to also remembered it and could finish the line of the father from memory.

To be a “real” Christian, not just a “respectable” one, it is essential for us as priests that we desire this for all the faithful, but especially so for discerning youth and young adults who are making long-term plans.

Planting seeds about vocational discernment has a cost, but it is a necessary investment if we desire one’s discipleship to mature. It invites the baptized beyond the threshold of respectable into real, beyond remaining just a grain of wheat and becoming conformed to Christ’s words of “falling to the ground, dying, and bearing much fruit.”

One of my favorite quotes to help direct any vocational or discernment conversation is from St. Catherine of Siena: “Be who you were made to be, and you will set the world on fire.” For many priests, especially those in parochial ministry, some of the primary risks of vocational evangelization is that we will need to share our own story and sacrifices; our invitations for others to discern may be considered an interruption to one’s current plans; or we may even face rejection and misunderstanding.

But, when one enters his or her vocation with fire, clarity and hope, you will know the joy of helping to ignite this. Let’s take a few minutes to refresh our beliefs in the value of vocational evangelization and to accompany those discerning with some foundational steps that will cultivate the Holy Spirit’s invitations within your parish.

The Lord Is Already at Work

Early on, as a vocation director, I was stunned by a thank you card I received from a seventh-grader. In Cleveland, we have hundreds of junior high Catholic students visit the seminary annually.

Thank you cards for the tour and pizza are a common follow-up, but there are times when there is clear evidence of the Holy Spirit already fostering a calling within a young person’s heart. This seventh-grader wrote to me: “I had a blast when I was at the seminary. I was really inspired. I did ask God what he wants me to do, and I should be a priest. Thank you for everything, and I got a lot out of this field trip.”

As a vocation director, one of the realities I have seen time and again is this: The Holy Spirit is constantly at work inviting the baptized to enter deeper discernment. Priests often have the privilege of offering the first verbal invitation to an altar server at the parish, or we may encourage a college student on retreat to enter formation, but the Spirit has been behind the scenes preparing this moment.

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World Day of Prayer for Vocations

World Day of Prayer will be observed on Sunday, May 8, 2022, 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” (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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I believe the Spirit begs us to verbalize what he has already been whispering. One of the first encouragements I can offer a brother priest is that the Lord is already at work within some of those of a discerning age, making their hearts and minds ready for an invitation. Remember, as priests — or even members of parish staff or faithful parishioners — we are never alone as we evangelize the value of discerning one’s vocation.

The short thank you card revealed a second lesson to me: Our young people are very capable of engaging their hearts, minds and imaginations to seek virtuous pursuits. They are capable of seeing beyond their feelings and comforts. They can desire vocational commitment and the fruits that come from it over secular security. The young man’s words were descriptive of being inspired, of taking a moment to pray, of listening, and of receiving direction. We know from annual studies by CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) that significant numbers of our high school or college students first begin to discern their vocation during adolescence.

Be encouraged that youths and young adults understand — even from an early stage of maturity — that they are called to greatness and to more than their own plans. Even if they are slow to listen when we invite, don’t hesitate; instead, trust that the Spirit will bless your efforts.

I was grateful that this young man had such a positive experience of the seminary, but it has made me critically reflect over just how effective we are at initiating awareness of the various vocations outside of the seminary and religious houses. Our parishes are full of committed, discerning disciples — we have a storehouse of experience, intercession and desire to help the next generation emerge.

Committed disciples of all vocations desire to initiate others into deeper thresholds of faith, and I have come to believe that, as priests and pastoral staff members, one of our first responsibilities for ensuring a future harvest of vowed and “real” Catholics is to form our parishes into places of intentional discernment. A final encouragement would be: The next generation of married, religious, priestly, single and diaconal saints await our efforts and invitation. Imagine now how you and others within your parish will help those discerning discover a life of being on fire.

Road Map of First Steps

A great majority of us who have discerned and entered our vocations would likely acknowledge that several committed disciples intensely prayed for us, possibly for years, before we acted on the Lord’s inspirations. The intuition and intercession of other parishioners, family members, teachers or youth ministers supply a much-needed spiritual endurance to continue in discernment.

A necessary first step is to begin vocational evangelization with prayer, specifically with petition and intercession. Inspiring other parishioners into deeper support of those discerning with prayer and sacrifice will be key. An often-forgotten group of parishioners whose prayers are powerful is the homebound. Distributing intercessory materials to them is a simple way to include their voices as your parish beseeches the Lord to inspire those discerning. Weekly or monthly petitions at Mass or having prayer cards available from your diocesan vocation office are also examples of good first steps.

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Additional Resources

For additional resources, visit: https://www.usccb.org/committees/clergy-consecrated-life-vocations/vocations
www.diocesanpriest.com
www.Vocationministry.org
www.serraus.org
www.Vianneyvocations.com

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Partnered with the need for prayer, another initial and practical step is to form a parish team, or vocation council, who can joyfully witness to their own journeys and support those discerning. I often refer to these people as “animators” — those that are a catalyst for vocational awareness with the parishioners around them.

This team adopts the responsibility of evangelizing the people and culture of the parish to generate more intentional vocational discernment, increased invitations to our youths and young adults to consider the Lord’s plans, and accompanying inquirers into taking action steps. Therefore, possible members could include the Serrans or Knights of Columbus, daily Communicants or quiet Eucharistic adorers.

Connect these parishioners with the names of those whom you want them to pray for while asking for their assistance with events and outreach.

In regard to hosting efforts to increase the parish culture of discerning intentionally, my suggestion is that you follow Pope Francis’ steps of evangelization described in Evangelii Gaudium. He describes these steps as proceeding stages of relationship that lead to action: encounter, accompaniment, community, sending.

Like working with one who is seeking initiation into the Church, a simple conversation is often the first encounter that later matures into sacramental reception. It is similar to those who are discerning a lifelong promise. Encounters are often events, witnesses or first invitations that introduce the Lord’s desires. These lead to personal accompaniment and conversation, which clarifies and grows understanding within one’s heart and mind. Community with others who are themselves courageously seeking, or who are interceding for those discerning, offers the surrounding for one being sent or called into courageous action.

I personally have found that a discerner requires multiple people to accompany them into an application for seminary, religious life, the diaconate or even toward engagement. I have also seen that when this accompaniment is absent, there often is less courage and wisdom in one’s discernment.

The time is now! Invite authentically with a sacrifice of your time and accompaniment. Begin pastoral planning for the months ahead that offers a variety of encounters. Gather a group of intercessors. The Lord is not outdone in generosity.

Take a moment and imagine your goal for the next year. What would you like to see within your parish? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you faces of who should be invited. Remember, in the opening story it was an invitation that led to the young woman seeing more and then acting with courage. Who is it within your parish that you feel the Holy Spirit is asking you to invite?

FATHER MICHAEL McCANDLESS is the vocation director for the Diocese of Cleveland.

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Encounters and Accompaniment

Vocational evangelization exists where encounters and accompaniment like these are taking place:

• Frequent preaching and witnessing about the goodness of all the vocations — married, consecrated, diaconal, single and priestly — and their benefit to the Church.

• Enhancing the awareness of all vocational paths by inviting those of a particular vocation to witness their discernment journey.

• Presentations by the vocation director, religious, deacons, seminarians and those in religious formation.

• Available materials that help discerners find questions to their initial questions.

• Frequent dialogue between those who are committed within a vocation and those who are discerning, so as to aid their clarity — that is, panel experience for youth groups.

• Numerous opportunities through the parish school, youth group or confirmation class to be introduced to and explore the various vocations — that is, visiting the seminary, inviting presentations, utilizing effective media.

• A process of spiritual mentoring or direction that accompanies one’s discernment — that is, when a priest invites one who is discerning into a more regular conversation.

• Sustained evangelization about vocations is essential to an annual pastoral plan.

• Forming a parish vocation council, which collects the energy, prayer and creativity of many faithful.

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