Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This day was designated by Pope Paul VI in 1963 as the annual World Day of Prayer for vocations to the Catholic priesthood.
Pope Benedict XVI issued a special message for the World Day of Prayer this year. In his message the Holy Father encouraged Catholics to foster vocations to the priesthood. They can do this by noting any suitable young man in the community, and encouraging him to consider the possibility that God may be inviting him to become a priest to serve his people.
I remember Salvador, the nine year old who is my altar boy in Mexico where I go on mission every year. One day one of the women heard me telling him that some day he would take my place at the altar when I was no longer able to be there. Two days later I heard her telling him that if he was faithful to his duties and said his prayers, the people would help him to go to the seminary and become a priest for them.
Twenty years ago when I was a missionary in Chile, I remember celebrating Christmas Mass for a community high in the mountains in the Atacama desert. I was surprised to learn from the people that this was the first time they had Christmas Mass since 1922.
In that part of Chile many of the communities do not have Sunday Mass, because there are not enough priests. Unfortunately the same is true for many communities in mission countries throughout the world.
During the past twenty years there has been a slight increase in the number of priests in Asia and Africa, but these are needed for the growing number of Catholics in those continents. The number of priests is still in decline in Europe and the Americas, and last year Pope Benedict referred to a world priest shortage.
That is why we have a World Day of Prayer for vocations. But prayer brings a responsibility. Saint Augustine reminds us that we must work to bring about what we pray for. For us that means the responsibility of fostering vocations. For our Church leaders it means making good decisions.
Last year I remember watching Pope Benedict XVI on television officiating at a canonization ceremony in Rome. During the ceremony the commentator remarked that there were 300 priests distributing Holy Communion to the people there. I was saddened to think of the thousands of people throughout the world who had no priest for Sunday Mass while so many priests were in Rome that Sunday for a ministry that could be performed by others.
I believe that God is not failing to provide ministry for the people. If there are people not being served it may be due to the faulty use of resources, or to rules that do not have the service of God’s people as their priority. One obvious example is that married converts are allowed to exercise priestly ministry, but married Catholics are not.
As we pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest (Luke 10, 1-2), we could also pray that he guide the leaders of the Church as he guided the apostle John to be inclusive in accepting those willing and able to engage in ministry (Luke 9, 50). God is providing for his people. Pray that we cooperate by lifting restrictions on the priestly ministry so that no community will be left without its weekly Eucharist, without which, we are told, there is no life (John 6, 53).