By Lydia O’Kane
This Sunday, 3 May, marks the 57th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It is a day that is set aside by the Church to encourage people to reflect and discern God's call to them.
Over the course of his Pontificate, Pope Francis has spoken many times about the call to priesthood and religious life.
Speaking to seminarians and novices in 2013 the Pope said that “becoming a priest or a man or woman religious is not primarily our own decision … rather it is the response to a call and to a call of love.”
In his message for this year’s World Day, Pope Francis wrote, “The Lord’s call is not an intrusion of God in our freedom; it is not a 'cage' or a burden to be borne. On the contrary, it is the loving initiative whereby God encounters us and invites us to be part of a great undertaking.”
With lockdowns in place in many parts of the world due to the coronavirus, people have had more time in their homes to reflect on their life’s path and how they can connect with God at a deeper level.
Courage to say “Yes”
Joining the Pope’s call for a promotion of vocations, Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of the diocese of Waterford and Lismore in Ireland, and the chair of the Irish Bishops’ Council for Vocations, says it takes courage to follow God’s call.
“It does take a lot of courage to say ‘yes’ to a vocation especially in today’s culture. But by the same token people are looking for happiness. And where do they go and seek it? That’s the question, and Jesus is saying to us, ‘come to me’ ”.
The people who truly inspire us in this life, notes the Bishop, are not the people who have taken the easy way out: “They are the people who continue to love in spite of everything”.
“I was happy to be a priest, that was part of my own vocation story”, he says.
Offering advice for men and women considering a vocation, Bishop Cullinan invites people to “pray and trust; don’t be afraid. We are all unworthy; there is nobody who is worthy of priesthood except Jesus Himself.”
Inspired to serve
In the midst of a global pandemic, many people have been doing inspiring things to help and support others. There are the healthcare workers on the front lines along with hospital Chaplains who are there to comfort the sick and their families. Asked if this could inspire people to follow a call like this, Bishop Cullinan says it could well be the case, because, “the Lord uses any and every situation to mediate his grace, and please God there will be young men and women inspired by that example.”
Decline in Vocations
Over the last number of years there has been a dramatic fall in the number of men and women taking up a vocation to the religious life.
The decline has been especially evident in the Americas and Europe. It seems the days are gone when families would have had at least one son or daughter entering the convent or seminary. Bishop Cullinan notes that the lack of vocations in the western world is a worrying trend.
“Obviously in Africa and parts of Asia things are a lot better as regards the numbers going into priesthood and religious life, but certainly it is a worry here [in Ireland] but we do have to trust that the Lord is still calling.”
There can be little doubt that the abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in Ireland and beyond have affected how some people view the priesthood. Yet, Bishop Cullinan says that people also see the struggles that priests have, and they also see “the faith moving a young man to go against very often social trends and become a priest, and deep down I have no doubt whatsoever that people are so inspired when they see somebody who is prepared to become a priest today; it is such a beacon of light.”
Communication during Covid-19
Over the last two months priests and religious have had to adapt to how they interact with their communities. This year Masses for the World Day for Vocations will be celebrated virtually using different media platforms.
Bishop Cullinan says that despite the many forms of communication that are being used at this time, nothing can replace being in front of a congregation.
He does note, however, that the current pandemic has meant that priests are becoming much more adept at using social media and other technologies in order to reach their flock.
Bishop Cullinan commented that, for himself personally, it has made him much more conscious of people in other countries who can never get to Mass because of persecution, fear of regimes, or because their churches have been destroyed.
“I think this pandemic has made us realize what a great blessing it is to have churches, to have priests, to have religious… and this lockdown has made us more conscious of the great blessing that we have in this country, religious freedom."