Jesus says, “Pray the master of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:36) Our Lord looks out at the great crowd that wants to follow him, and He feels compassion for them because “they are like sheep without shepherds”. In the next chapter, Jesus chooses the Twelve, to be His shepherds.
Today, this same ministry of shepherding the sheep and laboring in the harvest is carried out by the bishops and their co-workers in the priesthood and diaconate. This week, I got to experience in a deep way this same “compassionate feeling” through two experiences here in Italy.
The first came when Father Paul Sullivan, Vocation Director for the Diocese of Phoenix, told me he was going to Sicily to pray at the tomb of Saint Annibale Maria di Francia (I write the Italian name, because Hannibal reminds me too much of Silence of the Lambs). This great idea of Father Paul included two nine-hour train rides in the space of 24 hours. With a little visit to Sicily in-between! A true vocations pilgrimage!!
Saint Annibale (1851-1927) was a priest of the Archdiocese of Messina, who felt deeply the same compassion of Jesus to pray the Master of harvest to send laborers, what he would call the “evangelical rogation” (the prayer asked for by Jesus in the Gospel). To that end, he founded the Rogationist Fathers, whose task it is to pray for vocations, to pray for laborers for the Lord’s harvest.
Father Sullivan shared with me some of the devotion he has to this saint, and we spent the morning in prayer at his shrine in Messina. We got to see the museum dedicated to him and to his work: the founding of an orphanage in the poor surrounding neighborhood, the founding of the men’s and women’s communities to pray for vocations, and the continuing work of this community.
The one thing that Jesus asked us to do in the Gospel for “vocation work” was to pray. He did not ask for promotional posters or “cool priests” in vocations work (all of which can be good). He asked us to pray. Why? Because a vocation is a gift, only a gift. Each of us has a vocation, and the Lord wants to give us the grace to know it, to renew it when we are in need (very often), and to live the life He has planned for our happiness and for the good of the whole world. A vocation is a mystery: the mystery of God’s freedom to choose us and our freedom to respond to His call.
It is this aspect of vocation as a gift and a mystery that brings me to my second experience in this “vocation week” that I just lived: the ordination of deacons from the North American College at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Forty-one men were ordained deacons for dioceses in the US, Canada, and Australia. One of those 41 was Deacon Kevin Grimditch of the Diocese of Phoenix. The ordaining bishop was Cardinal Harvey (an American who is the Archpriest of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls–I don’t know what the means, but when I do, I’ll let you know) who gave us a beautiful reflection on the heart of these vocations.
At one point in the ordination liturgy, the bishop asks the one presenting the candidates for ordination, “Do you know them to be worthy?” What a question! Who is worthy to serve the Lord? Who is worthy to be a deacon, a priest, a bishop? What have we done to “deserve” the Lord’s call, our vocation?
The Lord makes us worthy to serve Him, to follow Him, to be with Him. We remember that when Jesus calls the Apostles it is so that they can “be with Him” (Mark 3:14) and only then does He send them out. And so, in front of our vocation, we have a sense of our greatness (I am chosen) that is proportionate only to the sense of our nothingness (I am nothing)–just like Our Lady.
The most striking thing about this ordination of deacons for me was the location of the ordination, the Altar of the Chair, which includes the famous window of the Holy Spirit. During the part of the ordination when the Cardinal lays his hands on the candidates, the congregation prays in silence for those being ordained. You can imagine the long period of silence when 41 men are being ordained!
During that time, I found myself looking up at the window and begging the Holy Spirit to fill these men and to continue to fill the Church (myself included) with grace, with the light of faith, with the warmth of love, with zeal for mission, the zeal of the saints.
The one thing the Lord asks us to do for vocations is to pray. For vocations, we need to pray, to ask our Lord, to beg Him to send workers to His vineyard.
But I might add one more sense to that phrase “prayer for vocations”. Namely, we need to learn how to pray, and when we learn how to pray, how to hear the voice of the Lord, how to recognize Him moving in our lives, we won’t have to worry about having “enough” vocations. Christianity has never been about “enough” but about “life in abundance” (John 10:10).
In prayer, I will begin to taste the hundredfold that Jesus promised to us already in this life, in anticipation of the eternal life to come. I will learn to depend on the Lord and His ever-greater grace–that “I-am-You-who-make-me”: I find myself in the gaze with which He looks at me.
I am most truly who I am in the sight and in the presence of God. That is prayer…for vocations.