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Holy Christians Guarantee Holy Priests | Bishop Fulton J. Sheen | From The Priest Is Not His Own | Ignatius Insight

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Holiness descends in the Church from the All-Holy God through Christ, His bishops and His priests, to the entire community that is the Mystical Body. But there is simultaneously an ascending movement of holiness from the Christian community to the All-Holy God. Particularly is this true of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.

There is no priest who does not go through the motions of urging the faithful to pray for vocations. But, too often, the phrases are formal. They are what is expected of one. In the priest's mind, they are a part of the announcements, on a level with the card party for the Ladies' Auxiliary or the Catholic Youth Organization skating meet.

These other activities are, of course, not to be sneered at. They too foster a Christian life and therefore stimulate vocations. But can we put them in the same category as prayer? Out of hundreds of possible ways of fostering vocations, prayer was the single one Our Lord specified.
The harvest, He told them, is plentiful enough, but the laborers are few; you must ask the Lord to Whom the harvest belongs to send laborers out for the harvesting. (Luke 10:2)
What prompted these words? Luke says that Christ spoke them on the occasion of choosing seventy-two disciples (Lk 10:1). Matthew sketches the background in more detail. It was after a long journey, he noted, and the Lord's heart was touched by compassion for the masses who hungered for knowledge of heaven but did not know where to search for what they lacked.
Yet still, when He looked at the multitudes, He was moved with pity for them, seeing them harried and abject, like sheep that have no shepherd. Thereupon He said to His disciples, The harvest is plentiful enough, but the laborers are few; you must ask the Lord to Whom the harvest belongs to send laborers out for the harvesting. (Matthew 9:36-38)
Not only those already in the Church but equally those outside her make Him yearn for laborers, lest the plentiful wheat rot in the fields.

Christ's compassion for the multitude was twofold. Because they were hungry, He miraculously fed the five thousand. Because their souls suffered, sheep without a shepherd, He was moved with pity.

Every true priest has the same heart-tearing pity as he flies over a great city such as Paris, New York or London. Down below he sees with Christ's eyes millions of souls unfed by the Eucharist, unhealed by penance, living in houses built on sand because they know not the Rock. He sees in them what Our Lord saw when He looked at the multitudes-danger of eternal loss! Here are countless acres ripe for harvesting, but how few the laborers to gather!

Our Lord indicates that this harvest of souls is convertible. He is enthusiastic about the prospects of winning souls, and His words are intended to project that enthusiasm to His priests. He made a similar expression of confident anticipation when the crowds streamed out of Samaria to hear His words:
Why, lift up your eyes, I tell you, and look at the fields, they are white with the promise of harvest already. (John 4: 35)
As wheat does not oppose the sickle, so the masses will not oppose us. One wonders if we do not underestimate the possibility of conversions. The failure may simply be in our defective preparation and approach. The unbelievers will not go to hear philosophers, but they will go to hear saints. Priests who work in the slums amid the outcasts report that they rarely meet with an insult. Like the wheat, the masses will bend only before a certain kind of harvester. Not finding us as we should be, they turn their backs on us. But when they encounter a priest whose life expresses the message he brings, they are ready to be harvested.

What Our Lord asked us to pray for was laborers. He did not say, "My Father is almighty; He can make the few accomplish much." He knew the extent of His Father's power, but He was also one with His Father in the divine plan to sanctify man with the aid of human means. In the Incarnation, His human nature was instrumentum conjunctum divinitatis. In the prolongation of His Incarnation, He uses us as instruments. Though He could reap the harvest without men, He will not. But only laborers, not idlers, are acceptable instruments. The priest must study to perfect his mind, not wearying the people with stale repetitions. It is true that "words will be given you when the time comes" (Mt 10:19); but what Our Lord here promised was not inspiration for those who do not prepare their message, but the help of the Spirit for those persecuted beyond human resource. In the designs of Providence, whether a priest receives the gift of final perseverance may depend not only on the amount of evil he has done, but on the good he has left undone.

The laborers must go into the harvest fields, to the masses, to the unbelievers, to the abandoned, to the rudderless. Is it not possible that the Lord withholds many vocations from dioceses and mission societies because of the growing use of priests in strictly secular activities? Why specifically does God call a man to the priesthood? It is not easy to justify the placing of a priest in insurance, building, accountancy, banking, publicity and promotion when the need is so grave for convert makers, for missioners to search out the lost sheep and lead them gently to the fold of Christ. Do we lack dedicated and reliable laymen able to do such tasks as well or better? If the Lord was so particular about the fragments of bread, which He ordered gathered up, then will He not insist jealously that His priests do precisely that for which He called them?

Why did Our Lord, when He spoke of vocations, single out precisely the word pray? Because prayer is the expression of the Christian community and the yearning of the Church. As the Church gets the kind of pope she deserves, so she gets the kind and number of priests she deserves. Why do some countries have so many vocations? Because the Catholic people of these countries, rich in their faith, want priests, and they pray to be given the priests they want. Why do some countries have so few? Because few people, even few parents, pray for priests. "Ask, and the gift will come" (Lk 11:9). Can we hope to receive if we do not ask? There are probably hundreds of thousands of vocations hanging from heaven on silken cords; prayer is the sword that cuts them. The laborers are available potentially in the heart of Christ; it is our petitions that actualize them. "And I was never consulted?" (Is 30:2).

Are there prayers in church for vocations? Do mothers pray for vocations for their children? Do the faithful pray the Lord "to send laborers out for the harvesting" (Mt 9:38)? Do schoolchildren pray for the call of God?

What the Christian community wants ardently, the Lord of the harvest will grant. That is why Our Lord told us to pray. The command was intended for all, but it was given directly and specifically to the Apostles and the disciples, as His ambassadors and coworkers among the people. Prayer in the Church is alone primary; publicity and its methods are secondary. The search for vocations begins on our knees. One bishop had no candidates for the priesthood in two years. He began a campaign of prayer in the schools of his diocese, and without any other publicity he had activated forty vocations at the end of one year.

The original Greek word for "sending" laborers into the fields is stronger than the Latin (Mt 9:38). It means that the Lord of the harvest would thrust them out, or propel them forward. The same Greek word is used by Matthew (8 :31) for the expulsion of a devil out of a man (though different words are used in describing the incident in Mark 5:8 and Luke 8:29); it takes a great power to drive the priesthood into a man. This power Our Lord said He would exercise, if we prayed. It even suggests that from totally unexpected and impossible places, He would inspire vocations.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Excerpts:

Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars | Pope Benedict XVI
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
Satan and the Saint | The Feast Day of St. John Vianney | Carl E. Olson
Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Pray the Harvest Master Sends Laborors | Rev. Anthony Zimmerman
Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest

Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) is considered by many to be the most influential Catholic of the 20th century in America. Millions of people watched his incredibly popular television series every week, "Life is Worth Living", and millions more listened to his radio program, "The Catholic Hour". Wherever he preached in public, standing-room-only crowds packed churches and halls to hear him. He had the same kind of charisma and holiness that attracts so many people to Pope John Paul II, who called Sheen "a loyal son of the Church." Learn more about Archbishop Sheen by reading his autobiography, Treasure In Clay, or visiting the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Foundation website.

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