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St. John Paul II: The problem of vocations is the fundamental problem of the Church

Excerpt from the Homily of the Holy Father John Paul II – May 10, 1981

The problem of priestly vocations – and also that of religious vocations, both male and female – is, I will say it openly, the fundamental problem of the Church. It is a proof of her spiritual vitality and is the very condition of this vitality. It is the condition of her mission and of her development.

This concerns both the Church in her universal dimension and also each of the local Churches, the dioceses and, analogically, the religious congregations. It is necessary, therefore, to consider this problem in each of these dimensions, if our activity in the area of the flourishing of vocations is to be appropriate and effective.

Vocations are the proof of the Church’s vitality. Life begets life. It is not by chance that the Decree on Priestly Formation, in dealing with the duty to “increase vocations,” stresses that the Christian community “is obliged to carry out this task first of all by a fully Christian life” (Optatam totius, 2).

Just as a field demonstrates the richness of its own vital humus with the lushness and vigor of the harvest that grows in it (the reference to the Gospel parable of the sower is spontaneous here: cf. Mt 13:3-23), so an ecclesial community gives proof of its vigor and maturity with the flowering of vocations that comes to affirm itself in it.

Vocations are also the condition for the vitality of the Church. There is no doubt that this depends on all the members of each community, on the “common apostolate” and in particular on the “apostolate of the laity”. It is equally true, however, that the priestly ministry is indispensable for the development of this apostolate. Moreover, the laity themselves know this very well. The authentic apostolate of the laity is based on the priestly ministry and, in turn, manifests its own authenticity by succeeding, among other things, in bringing forth new vocations in its own milieu.

We can ask ourselves why things are the way they are.

We touch here on the fundamental dimension of the problem, that is, the very truth about the Church: the reality of the Church as it has been shaped by Christ in the paschal mystery and as it is constantly shaped under the action of the Holy Spirit. To reconstruct in our conscience, or to deepen it, the conviction about the importance of vocations, we must go back to the very roots of a healthy ecclesiology, as presented by Vatican II. The problem of vocations, the problem of their flourishing, belongs in an organic way to that great task that can be called “the realization of Vatican II”.

Priestly vocations are a proof and, at the same time, a condition of the Church’s vitality, first of all because this vitality finds its unceasing source in the Eucharist, as the center and summit of all evangelization and of the full sacramental life. From this arises the indispensable need for the presence of the ordained minister who is precisely in a position to celebrate the Eucharist.

And then, what about the other sacraments through which the life of the Christian community is nourished? In particular, who would administer the sacrament of penance if the priest were absent? And this sacrament is the means established by Christ for the renewal of the soul and for its active integration into the vital context of the community. Who would attend to the service of the Word? And yet, in today’s economy of salvation, “faith comes by preaching, and preaching by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

There are then, vocations to the consecrated life. They are the proof and, at the same time, the condition for the vitality of the Church, because this vitality must find, by the will of Christ, its expression in the radical evangelical witness of the Kingdom of God in the midst of all that is temporal.

The problem of vocations continues to be, dear brothers, a problem in which I am very interested in a very special way. I have said it on several occasions. I am convinced that, in spite of all the circumstances that are part of the spiritual crisis that exists in the whole of contemporary civilization, the Holy Spirit does not cease to act in souls. Indeed, he acts with even greater intensity. It is precisely from this that favorable prospects for vocations also arise for the Church today, provided that she tries to be authentically faithful to Christ; provided that she hopes without limit in the power of his redemption, and tries to do everything possible to “have the right” to this trust.

The condition of communion pk ,. ?90i” I have said elsewhere, “is the plurality of vocations and also the plurality of charisms. The common Christian vocation is unique: the call to holiness; and the fundamental charism of being Christian is unique: the sacrament of baptism; however, on its foundation are identified particular vocations, such as the priestly and religious vocations and, together with these, the vocation of the laity, which, in its turn, brings with it the whole range of possible varieties. In fact, the laity can participate in various ways in the mission of the Church within her apostolate.

“They serve the community of the Church itself, taking part, for example, in catechesis or in charitable service and, at the same time, they open in the world the ways in many fields of their specific commitment.

“Serving the communion of the People of God in the Church means caring for the various vocations and charisms in what is specific to them and working to ensure that they complete one another, just as each member does in the organism (cf. 1 Cor 12:12 ff.).

We can confidently look to the future of vocations, we can trust in the effectiveness of our efforts aimed at their flourishing, if we consciously and decisively distance ourselves from that particular “ecclesiological temptation” of our times which, from various quarters and with multiple motivations, tries to enter into the consciences and attitudes of the Christian people. I am referring to proposals that tend to “laicize” the ministry and priestly life, to replace “sacramental” ministers with other “ministries,” judging that they respond better to the pastoral needs of today, and also to deprive the religious vocation of the character of prophetic witness to the Kingdom, directing it exclusively towards functions of social animation or even of direct political commitment.

This temptation affects ecclesiology, as was lucidly expressed by Pope Paul VI, who, speaking to the general assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference on the problems of the ministerial priesthood, declared: “On this point, what distresses us is the assumption, more or less widespread in certain mentalities, that one can dispense with the Church as she is, with her doctrine, her constitution, her historical, evangelical and hagiographical origin, and that one can invent and create a new Church according to certain ideological and sociological schemes, which are also mutable and not guaranteed by intrinsic ecclesial exigencies. Thus we sometimes see how those who alter and weaken the Church on this point are not so much her enemies from outside, as some of her children from within, who claim to be her free authors” (Paul VI: Teachings to the People of God, II, 1970, p. 280).

Christ is the door of the sheep!

May all the efforts of the Church – and in particular of your Congress – may all the prayers of this Eucharistic assembly today reconfirm this truth!

May they give it full efficacy! May the new generations of Pastors of the Church enter through this “door”! May they always be new generations of “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4:1)!

Always new phalanxes of men and women who with their whole life, through poverty, chastity and obedience freely accepted and professed, bear witness to the Kingdom, which is not of this world and which never passes away.

May Christ – Gate of the sheep – open himself wide to the future of the People of God throughout the earth. And may he accept all that, according to our weak strength – but supported by the immensity of his grace – we try to do to awaken vocations.

May the humble Servant of the Lord, Mary, who is the most perfect model of all those who are called, intercede for us in these initiatives; she who, at the call from on high, responded: “Here am I, let it be done to me according to your word” (cf. Lk 1:38).