By Fr. Franco Pinto, SDB
Eastern Province Vocation Director
The Church has set April 25, 2010, as world day of prayer for vocations.
Why is it so difficult for some people to say “Yes” to Jesus in responding to a call to priesthood or religious life? I had been contemplating that question for quite some time when a young man, who had just two weeks prior expressed strong interest in the priesthood, e-mailed me to say he could not go on the planned trip to visit the seminary because he got a job watching a dog that weekend.
I had to laugh a little because I imagined Jesus calling forth a prospective disciple to come and follow him only to have the person say, “Not now. I have a dog to watch!” While that may seem a little funny today, I am sure that Jesus had to face the rejection of many invitations in his day, and he faces many rejections of his invitations to priesthood and religious life today.
The Scriptures tell of many stories of those who willingly said “Yes” to the call of discipleship despite their doubts and unworthiness. The fishermen, Andrew and Peter, James and John, reportedly left their nets, let go of their family relationships, and immediately became Jesus’ disciples to be fishers for the kingdom. Matthew, too, immediately left his post at the tax-collecting stand to follow Jesus. Mary, in the midst of her uncertainty in hearing the call through the words of the angel Gabriel, eventually trusted in the fulfillment of God’s promises and said, “Let it be done unto me as God says.” The pages of Scripture and church history are filled with example after example of saints who said, “Yes,” even in spite of some great hardships. There are only a few stories, however, of would-be-disciples who just could not say, “Yes.” It is not surprising that we do not know their names. Perhaps the most famous is the rich young man (Matthew 19) who desired to be a disciple and had lived a righteous life following all the commandments.
Jesus calls the first disciples from their nets (Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1255-ca. 1319)
When Jesus instructed him to sell what he had, give to the poor and then come and follow him, the Gospel reports the young man went away sad, because he had many possessions. Indeed money, possessions, and worldly things do get in the way of saying, “Yes.” Whether it is the temptation to have lots of expensive things or the fact that debts to pay for possessions have weighed a person’s life down, materialism remains a big reason why people reject the call today. There is a series of stories in Luke 9 that tell of another prevalent reason for not saying, “Yes.” One man is invited to follow Jesus and he responds, “Let me go first and bury my father.” A second man invited to discipleship says, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus sternly responds, “Let the dead bury the dead.... No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Perhaps Jesus seems overly harsh with these would-be-disciples. After all, they didn’t say, “No,” they merely said, “Not now.” Yet Jesus was not pleased with their, “Not now.” Why? Well, he was indicating that in each life there is a critical moment when we either respond positively to Jesus’ call or we don’t.
There is no incident in the Gospels where Jesus says, “Come away next year to follow me,” or, “Follow me when you think you’re ready.” There is immediacy to the call that demands a response now, because there is no guarantee that Jesus will be knocking on one’s door or calling one’s name tomorrow or next week or next year. One needs to say, “Yes,” whenever and wherever Jesus calls.
There Is a great number of men, young and not so young, who have been called to religious vocations, and yet they have responded with the excuses of today that led them to say, “Not now. Maybe later, Jesus.” To some extent good Catholics have encouraged these delay strategies. They say things like, “Test the call. If it is authentic it will be there after college or after a few years of work. There’s plenty of time; you’re still young. What’s the rush?” While these might be well-meaning bits of advice, they can mislead a young man into thinking that he should put aside a religious call and pursue other paths because the religious call, if authentic, will always be there.
I have spoken with more than a few men who believed this way when they were younger. They felt called to priesthood as young men, but instead they pursued other paths. Some have married and then tragically divorced, and now they feel a desire for priesthood. They realized too late that the call really never left them, but they chose to say, “Not now.” Many of them have gotten themselves into situations where they can no longer say, “Yes,” in a priestly way.
After seven years of vocation work and helping men consider the path of priestly service, I am convinced that, if we are to make a mistake in interpreting the call, it is better to err on God’s side. It is far better to say, “Yes,” now, perhaps discover that seminary life and priesthood or religious life are not good fits, and move on to something different, than to say, “Not yet,” now, and then discover too late that priesthood or religious life was the right thing to pursue. Their lives would have been so different had someone instead said to these men, “Don’t be afraid. Go now to serve Jesus. Give God the First Chance with your life. The Lord will never disappoint or abandon anyone who steps out in faith to serve Him.” These are the kinds of words with which we must encourage young people. These are words that inspire them to dream big dreams, to live with courageous spirits, and to love with generous hearts.
"You are a priest forever" (Ps 110:4); stained glass in the chapel of the provincial residence, New Rochelle (originally in the Salesian novitiate at Newton, N.J.)
More important, help some young person you know say, “Yes.” May we help young people follow after the heart of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, as priests and brothers!