By Elise Harris
When it comes to promoting vocations in the Church, Pope Francis said it all begins with an encounter with God – and that pastoral ministry in the area should focus on listening to youth and being there to answer their questions.
Pointing to his own papal motto “Miserando atque eligendo,” meaning “he sees by having mercy and choosing,” the Pope said Oct. 21 that he chose the motto “in memory of my youthful years in which I strongly felt the call of the Lord.”
The call, he said, “didn’t occur as a result of a conference or a beautiful theory, but by having experienced the merciful gaze of Jesus on me.”
Francis confessed that when he hears words used in common Church-speak such as “vocational ministry,” he is always “a little afraid,” because the phrase “could make one think of one of the many sectors of ecclesial action, of a curial office or, rather, of setting up a project.”
While these are certainly important, the Pope stressed that “there is much more: vocational ministry is an encounter with the Lord!”
“When we welcome Christ, we live a decisive encounter which sheds light on our existence, pulls us out of the anguish of our small world and makes us become disciples enamored with the Master.”
Vocational ministry, he said, means learning the style of Jesus, “who passes in the places of everyday life, stopping without haste, and looking at his brothers with mercy, guiding them to an encounter with God the Father.”
Pope Francis spoke to participants in an Oct. 19-21 conference on vocational ministry, organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy.
On Oct. 6 the Vatican announced “Young People, the Faith and the Discernment of Vocation” as the theme for the next synod of bishops, set to take place in 2018. The Pope’s speech to the conference participants, then, likely contains themes that will come up in the discussion.
In his address, Francis recalled how when Jesus first called the tax collector Matthew to be his disciple, he first went out to preach, then saw Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth and called him.
The Pope pointed to the three verbs of going out, seeing and calling, “which indicate the dynamism of every vocational ministry,” and offered a reflection on each.
When it comes to “going out,” he said one thing vocational ministry needs is “a Church in movement, able to expand its borders, measuring them not by the narrowness of human calculations or the fear of making mistakes, but on the large measure of the merciful heart of God.”
Vocations, he said, will never flourish as long as we stay closed inside “the comfortable pastoral criteria” of an “it’s always been done like this” attitude and if we aren’t “audacious and creative” in rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of how we evangelize.
“We must learn to go out from our rigidity which renders us incapable of communicating the joy of the Gospel, from standardized formulas that are often anachronistic and from preconceived analysis that pigeonhole people’s lives in cold schemes. Get out from all this,” he said.
Francis then turned specifically to the role of bishops and priests, telling them they are the ones primarily responsible for nourishing “Christian and priestly vocations.” This task, he said, “cannot be delegated to a bureaucratic office.”
“It’s sad when a priest lives only for himself, closing himself in the safe fortress of the rectory, of the sacristy or a small group of the ‘most faithful,’” he said, noting that the Gospel urges us to do otherwise.
The Pope pointed to the importance of seeing, noting how during his ministry, Jesus stops and meets the gaze of others “without haste. This is what makes his call fascinating and attractive.”
Unfortunately today’s face-paced world doesn’t always leave space for the internal silence “in which the call of the Lord resounds,” he said, cautioning that at times even in Christian communities we run the risk of being “taken in by the rush, excessively concerned about the things to do.”
By doing this, we risk falling into “an empty organizational activism, without being able to stop and encounter people,” Pope Francis said, noting that in the Gospel, we see that vocations begin from “a merciful gaze that rests on me.”
“This is how I like to think of the style of vocational pastoral,” he said, painting a picture of a pastor who is attentive, not in a rush and is able to stop, read situations “in depth,” and really enter into the lives of other people without ever making them feel threatened or judged.
A pastor’s gaze, he said, is “capable of inspiring awe for the Gospel, of awakening from the slumber into which the culture of consumerism and superficiality immerses us and arouse the authentic questions of happiness, above all in the youth.”
It’s also a gaze of a discernment that accompanies people without ever “taking possession of their conscience or pretending to control the grace of God,” Francis said, adding that this gaze must always be attentive and vigilant.
When it comes to priestly vocations and entrance into the seminary, the Pope begged bishops to “discern in truth” and to have “a shrewd and cautions gaze, without superficiality or shallowness.”
“Vigilance and prudence,” he said, stressing that the Church and the world “need mature and balanced priests, brave and generous pastors capable of closeness, listening and mercy.”
Francis then turned to action of calling, noting how it’s the typical verb used when referring to Christian vocations.
“Jesus doesn’t give long speeches, he doesn’t deliver a long program to adhere to, and neither does he offer ready-made answers,” he said.
What Christ wants is “to put people on the move, moving them from a lethal inactivity, breaking the illusion that it’s possible to live happily staying comfortably seated among one’s own securities,” he said, adding that the desire to seek is “a treasure” often found in the most young.
This gift must be cared for and cultivated in order to bear fruit, the Pope said, explaining that “instead of reducing the faith to a recipe book or a set of rules to be observed,” pastors can help youth ask the right questions that will ultimately help them discover “the joy of the Gospel.”
He noted how times pastors and pastoral workers get tired or frustrated by not seeing results, but said that “if we don’t close ourselves in complaints and continue to go out to announce the Gospel, the Lord will remain at our side and give us the courage to cast nets even when we are tired and deluded.”
Turning again to priests and bishops, Pope Francis urged them to persevere in making themselves close to others and in going out with a merciful gaze.
He told them not to be afraid of encounter or of announcing the Gospel, and not to be shy in offering youth the way of priestly life, “showing, above all with your joyful witness, how beautiful it is to follow the Lord and give him your life forever.”
“Vocational ministry is a fundamental task for the Church and calls into question the ministry of pastors and of laity,” he said, adding that “it’s an urgent mission that the Lord asks us to fulfill with generosity.”