I heard it again this last Sunday. In Father's homily, he made reference to the recent closure of 100+ parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, due to a so-called "lack of vocations." This raises the question: Is there a lack of vocations?
Surely we have to say this if there are not enough priests to serve in those communities, but we have to stop and think about what is meant when we say, "vocations." Just about all of us, if not explicitly, implicitly know that 'vocations' derives from the Latin root 'vocare' meaning to call. We call use the term generically to refer to our 'callings' in life.
The question we should answer first is: Who does the calling? I think most of us would immediately respond, "God." If we do that, then we ought to also ask, "How does God call us to any given 'calling?'" Let us assume for the moment that God does not wake us from our sleep to speak with us the way he did Samuel. Or let us assume that we are not exactly on the same face-to-face speaking terms with the Almighty that Moses was. Or let us assume that God does not lead us through our lives as a pillar of fire and smoke as He did with Israel.
I am not going to deny that God speaks to us through the stirrings of our hearts, but God is not the only one/thing that stirs our hearts. So, if we want to hear God speaking to us in our innermost amidst the upheaval of emotions, the excitement of our passions, and the distractions of our desires, we are going to need first to order our desires, quell our passions, and keep a sober mind. Even after we have done this, there is still the risk that the stirring we feel, the restlessness that moves us is not from God. We still run the risk of confusing our own misguidings as God's call.
Lucky for us, we do not live in a vacuum. And if we are truly lucky, we know one or two others who work hard at living lives that are properly ordered toward God, people that rely whole-heartedly on the Sacraments and Scripture. These people are great resources for us. They can help us determine God's calling for us. One of the most dangerous things we can do is to determine our vocation on our own.
Now that we have some sense of how God calls us and how we hear God's call, we can ask: What kind of vocation shortage to we really have? What is the cause of the shortage of vocations? If there is a shortage of vocations, we have to attribute this shortage to one of two causes. There is either a lack of being called, or a failure to respond to that call (for any number of reasons). Has God stopped calling young men to the priesthood or have young men stopped responding to God's call?
I do not know the mind of God well enough to know which is the case. I do know that there are some pretty serious implications in saying that God is not calling as many. There is not much we can do if this is the case. If, however, God is still calling many, but they are not responding in the numbers that they once did, then we know that there is something that we can do. We can help others to hear that call.
Here is my final thought on the matter: If God's not calling men to the priesthood in the same numbers that he once did and we strive to help young men find their vocation anyway, or we help them to test a vocation to the priesthood, we do no harm (as long as we are not 'pushing' these men into priesthood). Shame on us if we ever discourage anyone from testing a vocation to the priesthood. Shame on us if we ever discourage any young man from applying to study for the priesthood.
We should be thankful for the vocations that we have. We should encourage every young, single Catholic male to apply for priestly studies.
Pray for vocations. Pray for our priests, deacons, and bishops. Support those in formation, and the Religious Orders who pray for vocations.