Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) was known even during his life as the “saint of charity,” as a self-sacrificing servant of the poor, and as a priest of great holiness, wisdom, and humility. Today, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, active in so many of our parishes, strives to imitate this great saint, offering spiritual and material aid to countless people in need.
Saint Vincent began his priestly life, however, not in greatness but in mediocrity, having little more ambition as a priest than to earn a good position and to live a comfortable life. He also struggled with a temptation to grumpiness. Vincent once said of himself that except for the grace of God he would have been “hard and repulsive, rough and cross.” But by God’s grace he became a tender and affectionate man, extremely sensitive to the needs of others.
Among the lives of the saints there are many stirring stories of conversion from the abject evil of a sinful life to a life of holiness. In the story of St. Vincent, we witness a conversion not from a life of depravity, but rather from the mediocrity he had chosen for himself to the spiritual greatness God had chosen for him.
This Sunday, May 3, we observe the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. No doubt, right now the COVID-crisis threatens to eclipse other prayer intentions in our hearts. But our need to pray for and cultivate vocations remains urgent. Our need for priests, religious, and holy married couples is in a crisis-state of its own. We desperately need all of the faithful to live lives dedicated to Christ.
A lesson from the life of St. Vincent de Paul is that we are all called out of the spiritual mediocrity into which we so easily slip. God summons each of us to excellence, no matter what our vocation is.
Also, while upholding the vital importance of all vocations, we need to face our especially acute need for priestly vocations.
We need more priests, and we need truly great priests. We need priests with the passion of St. Peter, who in these weeks of the Easter Season we see proclaiming salvation in Jesus Christ and drawing people to Christ and the Catholic Church. We need priests who will be good shepherds acting in the Person of Jesus Who is the Good Shepherd.
A rapidly shrinking number of priests has already become a “bottleneck” choking the life of the Church. Opportunities to care for God’s people and to evangelize—opportunities both known and unknown–are missed because we lack the priests we need.
In the early years of my priesthood, which began in 2006, my presumption was that there are are many young men out there who just a step away from becoming priests, or at least from entering the seminary. All they need is a little attention, a little encouragement, a little help. What I have found over the years is that most young Catholic men are several steps away from entering the seminary. It’s not that these men stand at a fork in the road and take another path, at least not consciously. Many don’t even make it to the fork in the first place, or don’t seem to notice it. They simply are not properly prepared even to consider the priesthood.
Why are they unprepared? Because we don’t take seriously enough the challenge God issues to spiritual greatness. This has been a central theme in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and our recent popes. And is certainly a theme our bishops have emphasized time and again.
Our call to holiness is essential for our mission to evangelize the world around us. We need to turn away from our tendency to settle for spiritual mediocrity and embrace the challenge to become great, to become saints, whether we’re married, single, priests or religious.
We cannot expect to produce the next generation of holy families, priests, and religious sisters and brothers if we don’t provide models of holy family life, priesthood, and religious life. Inspiring and cultivating vocations is not a job for “religious geeks” or “holy rollers.” It is a mission to which all of us, without exception, are called.
Among the many lessons of this time of crisis and relative isolation, of ceasing activity and staying at home, we ought to consider whether and how we have tried to become holy, to live truly Christian lives. And when we find that we come up short of spiritual greatness–and this happens for all of us in one area or another of our lives–we should not panic. We simply turn away from whatever sins hold us back, beg God for the graces we need to improve, and then strive to think, speak, and act according to the graces we receive.
Saint Vincent de Paul came to see clearly that his own comfort in this world was of no importance compared to following God’s call wherever it led him. This was his path to greatness. It is the path of all the saints. It is a path each of us is called to take. It is the path that will prepare us to live our vocations more faithfully, and prepare our young people to discover and say “yes” to God’s plan for their lives.