My dear brothers and sisters:
In this May issue of the Catholic Courier emphasizing vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and vowed religious life, it is a joy to share with you some reflections expressing my own admiration for those living these vocations.
On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Gospel at Mass was that of the Good Shepherd. In meditating upon the theme of the Good Shepherd, we turn to St. John’s Gospel, chapter 10. There we hear the voice of Jesus saying: "My sheep hear my voice." But how are they to hear it if no one echoes it? Jesus goes on to say: "I know them and they follow me." But how can they follow Him if no one makes Him known to them and leads them to Him? Jesus proclaims the great gift He bestows upon His flock: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish." But how are they to receive that life if no one administers it to them? Finally, Jesus speaks these beautiful words of the Shepherd who protects: "No one takes them out of my hand." But how are they to know, believe and experience this security if there is no one to protect them, to stop them from wandering and to reassure those who do not wander?
Jesus Himself answered all of these questions in the words He would later speak at the Last Supper: "Do this in memory of me." For in the moment when He gave us the most holy sacrament of His Body and Blood, He also gave us those who would continue to give it to us in memory of Him until He returns at the end of time. The gift of the Eucharist is inseparable from the gift of the priesthood. But the gift of the Gospel also is inseparable from the priesthood. Since the Gospel and the Eucharist are not "things" but the living Word and the living Body of the Lord given for us, their power and availability to us comes through those Christ has chosen to be the living signs and the living instruments of His presence, as the great High Priest of God’s religion. A priest’s own words should be grounded in the Word of Christ; a priest’s own person should radiate and reflect the Body of the Lord who has consecrated him unto Himself for the sake of his brothers and sisters in God’s family.
With a brother’s love, Christ calls forth new disciples in every age to share His sacred ministry, to renew the sacrifice of our redemption in the Mass, to lead His holy people in love, to nourish them by His Word, and to strengthen them in the sacraments. Priests are called to give their lives in the service of Christ and for the salvation of His people. They are to strive to grow in the likeness of Christ and honor the Father by their courageous witness of faith and love.
The mission of the priest is shared and supported by those who serve the Lord unreservedly as consecrated religious and permanent deacons in the church. In reflecting on the history of the church in the United States, we cannot help but recognize that when our sisters and brothers came to this new world to begin a new life, the church accompanied them with priests and religious sisters and brothers. No sooner had these people from far-away places landed on these shores, were schools, hospitals, homes for orphans, refugees and the abandoned built. With fidelity to their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, religious were the face of Jesus to those who were anxious, weary and worried upon their arrival to a place so different from what they had known. If these United States became home to these sisters and brothers, it was due in no small part to the courageous witness of religious and priests. In so many ways they brought the words of the Statue of Liberty to life: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."Today this ministry continues, adapting itself to the needs of our age and aided by the renewal of the permanent diaconate. But regardless of the age, the strength of vocations depends upon union with the Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist, His perfect abiding presence in our midst.
Christ is with us, and it is Christ who calls us all to arise and to follow Him. It is Christ who today calls men to ordained ministry, and women and men to consecrated life. It is a call to abandon all things to serve Him in the church’s apostolates. It is a life that counters narcissism, which Pope Francis warns against in his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia: "Narcissism makes people incapable of looking beyond themselves, beyond their own desires and needs" (¶39, p. 29). Those consecrated to the service of Jesus Christ, in imitation of the Good Shepherd, are expected to place the needs of those entrusted to their pastoral care above their own needs. The love of Christ’s ministers for His bride, the church, and her people is the same love to which Pope Francis calls married couples to aspire: "It is a love that never gives up, even in the darkest hour" (Ibid., ¶118, p. 88). It is a love that is compassionate and empathetic, while at the same time avoiding "a lukewarm attitude, any kind of relativism, or an undue reticence in proposing the ideal," for to do so "would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church …" (¶ 307, p. 239). Ordained ministers and consecrated vowed religious "get soiled with the mud of the street" (¶308, p. 240), as did those missionaries who first came to this country and inserted themselves into every aspect of its life.
Christ is not lacking in His will to provide priests, deacons and religious to our age. We may be lacking in our faith and constancy to pray to the Lord of the harvest; to speak to one another positively about the priesthood, the religious life and the diaconate; and to foster in our young people the zeal and generosity to make this great act of sacrificial love. Many young people are doubtful about themselves, their own worth, their own abilities to have strong and holy desires; they need encouragement, leadership and eternal perspectives. While I can understand the worries, I repeat the words of Jesus: "Do not let your hearts be worried; trust in God and in me" (John 14:1). Indeed, the last years have presented some very poor and scandalous examples of priests and religious who betrayed members of their flock. But remember also the great numbers of the faithful ones, remember the holy ones, the saints and the martyrs over the church’s long history; remember the priests who for as many as 65 years, daily and faithfully carry out their ministry of tending the Lord’s sheep, of echoing His voice, of administering His life; the many religious in their senior years who keep the flame of apostolic life burning in their hearts.
We are not going to strengthen our church or our world by standing on the sidelines or reliving our memories of the past. We need to inspire our young people to do good, to be generous of heart, to build up, to foster better and higher values. The loving hearts of a mother and father, rooted in the love of Christ and His church, are surely among the most fertile soil for a son or daughter to perceive and to respond to the call of Christ. "‘Christian couples are, for each other, for their children and for their relatives, cooperators of grace and witnesses of the faith.’ God calls them to bestow life and to care for life" (Ibid. ¶ 321, p. 251).
Future priests, deacons and religious, whoever you are, wherever you are and whatever you are doing: Holy Mother Church needs you; the Savior calls you; the suffering and lost sheep long for you. Be of good courage! Come forward gladly with a Shepherd’s love so that people may know and love Jesus Christ and through your ministries, rejoice in the certainty of Jesus’ presence among us, and exult in the glorious life of the sons and daughters of God!
In closing, to our devoted laity who assist our priests, deacons and religious in the fulfillment of our pastoral duties — to our parish administrators and the countless numbers of laypeople throughout our parishes, institutions and charitable missions, who so devotedly assist us and do so with an admirable spirit of humility, joy and deep faith — to all of you I say thank you again and yet again! In this month dedicated to our Blessed Mother Mary, we ask that she guide our young people in discerning their vocations so that the Word may again become flesh in our midst. May God bless all our efforts to create a world where faith is real, love is lived, charity abounds and peace rests upon us all!
Assuring you of my prayers throughout this holy season of Easter, I remain,
Devotedly yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester