The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, is devoted by the Church to praying for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That doesn’t mean that the Church regards only priesthood and religious life as vocations. On the contrary, each one of us is called into being by the Lord and our lives are a living out (or should be) of all that that implies. In that sense, each and every one of us is, quite literally, a vocation. But on this Sunday of the year the Church asks us to think and pray about two special ways of responding to the Lord’s call. Why is that?
Most people have little difficulty with the idea of priests being necessary to the Church. Without priests, we can have neither sacraments nor authoritative teaching. But priests don’t come out of thin air, as it were. They come from families, from the ordinary world in which most of us live and work; and it is our duty, as members of the Church, to encourage and support those who are, however tentatively, exploring the possibility of becoming priests themselves. This year we have all benefited from the homily Pope Francis gave on Maundy Thursday and the joy of being a priest. Too often the emphasis, especially of the media, is on the sacrifices that have to be made and the shortcomings of the individuals concerned. Today is a day when we need to be much more positive, much more hopeful. We need, too, to pray for those who have already responded, who are living out their priesthood as generously and faithfully as they can but who do not always feel as supported as they might.
But what of religious life, isn’t that a more difficult concept for many people? The Active Orders — those that teach or do social work, for example — are sometimes disregarded because there are so many lay people who do a fantastic job of teaching or whatever. ‘One doesn’t need to be a religious to do those things.’ Quite. One doesn’t. But the form of service these Orders and Congregations perform is their way of expressing something much more fundamental to their being: a love of God that can brook no rival, no distraction. The renunciations of religious life, above all, the forgoing of marriage and family, are not a purely ‘functional’ response to a particular mission. They are a response to a love so compelling that no other love can take its place.
The Contemplative Orders — typically, monks and nuns — are also often disregarded because, perversely, they are not seen to do anything ‘useful’. Yet the Church has always prized her contemplatives because their work of prayer is at the heart of the Church’s mission. It may not seem to achieve anything; it may even seem a waste of time; but love is never wasted. There are no barriers prayer cannot overcome, no frontiers it cannot pass. But it takes courage to go on, day after day, living by faith, not seeing results but trusting in God to do what he wills through us.
The whole Church is called to be holy, to live in the closest possible union with her lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; but some are called to live out this universal vocation to holiness in a particular way, in priesthood or religious life. Therefore I have a challenge for those reading this post today. Is there anyone you know — perhaps yourself, perhaps a member of your family — who could, indeed should, spend a few moments in prayer asking the Lord whether he is calling them to priesthood or religious life? Is there anyone to whom a word of gentle encouragement could or should be spoken? For those of us who are priests and religious, there is the weightier challenge of leading lives that inspire others to follow in the same path; and that is one for every day of our lives, not just Vocations Sunday.
Note: there is a simple, light-hearted guide to the difference between religious sisters (active) and nuns (contemplatives) here.