Once upon a time, when I was giving a tour of Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on the West Side to a group of college students, one of them asked why there were a dozen different altars lining the sides of the church. I explained that at one time all of them were needed. When the adjoining Servite monastery had a dozen or more priests teaching at St. Philip High School or performing other non-parish ministries, many of these priests would come out at about the same time each morning and each would say Mass privately on one of these altars. One student looked at me and said, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
One of the most difficult concepts to convey to younger Catholics is what a well-oiled machine the Catholic Church was fifty or sixty years ago. There was a veritable army of priests, brothers, and sisters staffing Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and nursing homes. Some things we did in those days may not make much sense in retrospect, but because it was done that way everywhere by everyone it made sense at the time. When Sister Michael from the Little Sisters of the Poor spoke at Assumption last weekend, I think most of us recognized that her congregation’s ministry is an anomaly in today’s Catholic Church. Their Sisters continue to do “hands on” nursing in their institutions and do not just serve on the Board of Directors or hold some vague title like Mission Consultant. That once vibrant army of women and men religious has aged and dwindled dramatically over the past fifty years. There are many reasons for this, too numerous to list here. Yet this is not merely a story of retrenchment and diminishment. While the decline in the number of priests and religious has forced many Catholic institutions to close, it has also opened up opportunities for lay men and women to exercise real ministry in the Church, and this has enabled the Church to connect with people in ways that an all-celibate work force could not do.
This past weekend Pope Francis issued a special message for the 52nd World Day of Prayer for Vocations. As with many of the things the Pope has said and done these past two years, he approaches the call to priesthood and religious life a bit differently. In his message he points out that the common vocation we all have as Christians is mirrored in the Exodus experience, which is a story of liberation from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of “an amazing love story between God and his people.” We are all called, the Pope says, to leave behind certain comforts, familiar structures and self-centered pursuits “in order to center our life in Jesus Christ.” This leaving things behind is “not to be viewed as a sign of contempt for one’s life, one’s feelings, and one’s own humanity,” but as a way of growing in love. To receive and to respond to a call to priesthood or religious life “is not a private and completely personal matter fraught with momentary emotion,” but is part of “the missionary and evangelizing activity of the whole Church. The Church is faithful to her Master to the extent that she is a Church that ‘goes forth’, a Church which is less concerned about herself, her structures, and her successes, and more about her ability to go out and meet God’s children wherever they are, to feel compassion for their hurt and pain.”
The Pope is reminding us that a vocation to priesthood or religious life is not a career path, but a call to work with, to energize, and help the People of God to discover the central mystery of God’s love in their lives and to respond to God’s call to leave behind what does not serve them well. About young people considering a religious vocation, he says, “At times uncertainty, worries about the future and the problems they daily encounter can risk paralyzing their youthful enthusiasm and shattering their dreams, to the point where they can think that it is not worth the effort to get involved, that the God of the Christian faith is somehow a limit on their freedom. Dear young friends, never be afraid to go out from yourselves and begin the journey! The Gospel is the message that brings freedom to our lives; it transforms them and makes them all the more beautiful.”
As a footnote to all this, the Order of Friar Servants of Mary (the Servites) have been at Assumption since the parish began in 1881. Our present Provincial, Fr. John Fontana, has stated on a number of occasions that he hopes that we will be here for a long, long time to come. But that depends upon vocations to our Order. After a number of dry years, we now have some young men studying theology and several others are slated to enter initial formation this fall. Please pray for them in their journey of discernment. And if anyone has any questions about what this life is like, know that Fr. Brown, and Fr. Doyle and I would be happy to talk with you.