In the fullness of time,
God sent His Son, born of a woman" (Gal 4:4)
The "fullness of time" coincides, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out, "with the mystery of the Word and the Redemption of the world." In other words, we can say that the "fullness of time" coincides with the first Christmas at Bethlehem. For it was there, at that time, that the Son of God became Man in the person of Jesus Christ and began to dwell among us. And He came, not only to redeem mankind, but He also came to found His Church and give us His Body and Blood in order to continue His saving work here on earth.
Now it is mainly through the priesthood, instituted by Christ the High Priest at the Last Supper, that this redemptive work is carried out in the world. Hence Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis could say, while addressing a conference of newly appointed bishops last July in Rome, "No priesthood, no Eucharist! No Eucharist, no Church."
It is obvious, then, that the priesthood is essential for both the continued growth of the Church and also, indeed, for its very survival. For this reason the current status of the priesthood in the United States should be a cause of concern for everyone. Consider: over a period of 25 years -- from 1975 to 2000 -- the total number of priests in the US declined from 58,909 to 45,699 -- a loss of more than 13,000! And so because of this, more than ten percent of parishes in the country now have no resident priest. It goes without saying, then, that there is an urgent need to pray not only for priests, but also for an increase in priestly vocations.
It should be noted, though, that the number of vocations has risen in recent years. Nevertheless, despite this good news, the fact remains that the total number of seminarians studying for the priesthood in the US dropped from 48,992 in 1965 to 4,917 in 2000 -- a decrease of ninety percent in thirty-five years!
Bishop John Nienstedt, formerly of the Archdiocese of Detroit and now the newly appointed bishop of the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, has faced this crisis head-on and has come up with a program that could be seen as a model approach to solve the vocations problem. In his first homily to his diocese he strongly emphasized the importance of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He called upon his new diocese to make vocations a top priority for the coming year. He called upon families, clubs, groups, associations, parishes, indeed the entire diocese to pray, fast, and work for vocations.
Bishop Nienstedt was very specific in what he wanted. "Let us remember that vocations come from God, not from us, Jesus gives the grace, only He sustains the call," he said. "Therefore, I ask that for the next year every meeting on a parish or diocesan level begin with prayers for priestly, religious, diaconal and missionary vocations. I ask every family for the next year to pray for vocations whenever they sit down to bless their food or kneel down to give thanks for their abundance. I ask that for the next year every prayer of the faithful whether at a Eucharistic Celebration or a Scripture Service likewise include such a petition for vocations."
"Secondly, our fervent prayer must be accompanied with fasting," he continued. "Therefore, I ask that for the next year abstinence from meat on Fridays be undertaken specifically for vocations. At first, this may strike you as a simplistic request," he explained. "But I can assure you," he stressed, "that I have experienced in my own life how acceptable such fasting is to God when it is offered with a devoted heart. So that's my heartfelt request of every Catholic in this diocese -- prayer and fasting for priestly, religious, diaconal, and missionary vocations."
Further, the new bishop clearly explained the distinction between lay and ordained ministries. He stated that "the New Evangelization will require the dedicated involvement of lay ministries, but that vocations cannot be gained at the expense of ordained ministers." Then he went on to stress: "The hierarchy is a constitutive element of the Church established by Jesus Christ and that means without it we do not measure up to what Jesus Christ intended. I am convinced that Jesus is calling young men, and older men as well, to act in His priestly person. My brothers and sisters, we must believe this if we are to be faithful to Christ."
Let us all take to heart, then, the inspiring message of Bishop Nienstedt and implement his plea in our own lives and in the lives of our families. Further, let us also pray that other dioceses throughout the country may be inspired to adopt a program similar to the diocese of New Ulm. For there are undoubtedly many young men and older men as well who are being called by God to the priesthood. But impeded by contrary cultural influences, materialism, unrestrained individualism, and social values contrary to the Gospel, these men need to be liberated -- by prayer and fasting -- to follow the call of God.
"Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers for His harvest.
For the harvest is indeed great but the laborers are few" (Mt 9:37).
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