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Preparing for vocations to the priesthood
By James S. Foley
That we need more priests is evident; how to stimulate more vocations to the priesthood is not. Christ told us to pray to the Father to send more priests into his vineyardóand we are certainly doing thatóbut he didnít tell us how to get them to come in. That is something he is leaving up to us. Many claim that the vocations are out there; all we have to do is get them. But how do we get them? Many articles have been written on how to attract these vocations and different ways have been suggested. I would like to suggest one way that has had some success and hope that some parish priests might try it.
The idea is to start a spiritual club for those who are interested in learning more about God and how to serve him. Since many, even in the sixth, seventh and eighth grade, feel a call to do more for God, it would be wise to start there, even though no one should be excluded from the club who is older. When they come together, decide how many times you will meet: every two weeks or once a month, etc. Then lay down some rules. They are to go to Mass and Communion every day if this is possible. They must pray every day for fifteen minutes outside of Mass. They must spend fifteen minutes on spiritual reading. They must meet with the spiritual director once every two months to reveal how God is dealing with their soul. These rules are suggestions and can be replaced by other rules.
The point of the club is to teach them the ways of the spiritual life so that they can hear God speaking to them and respond: meditating on the commandments of God and of the Church; meditating on the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory be to the Father, the Apostles Creed and eventually on the Gospels; learning how to become free to seek God and virtue and how to avoid sin; the reason for sacrifice and how it leads to God; the Sacraments as the source of grace and spiritual living; spiritual reading and feeding the soul; the apostolate and saving souls; joining with other spiritual clubs for the feeling of solidarity. I would like to say something about each of these subjects now.
Youngsters wanting to please God are apt pupils for prayer since prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God. Since they must pray for fifteen minutes outside the Mass, they need to be taught the different ways of praying: first, vocal prayer, like the rosary or saying prayers from a prayer book; second, saying a prayer slowly with devotion, savoring each word; third, taking a prayer and stopping where they feel the Holy Spirit is touching them; fourth, prayer on the Ten Commandments, the Seven Capital Sins, the three powers of the soul and the five senses, asking themselves how they have kept them and used them according to Godís will or how they have misused them or abused them. For all these methods of prayer they should start with a preparatory prayer, offering the time for Godís greater honor and glory and ending with a thanksgiving for the inspirations given.
In the prayer on the Gospels they should consider the words of Christ and his actions and apply them to themselves. This is called a meditation. Again a preparatory prayer should be said, offering the time for Godís greater honor and glory and asking the grace to know the Lord more intimately, to love him more ardently and to follow him more closely.
In all of these prayers, even though they go only fifteen minutes, they should prepare ahead of time so that they know definitely what they are praying about and after the prayer they should ask themselves how the prayer went. If it went well, they should continue the same way. If it went badly, they should ask why and change what made it go badly.
Prayer is most important for the boysí spiritual life since it puts the boys into Godís presence and they learn to listen to what God is telling them and asking them. All prayer is leading to do Godís will so the boys will become used to doing his will and will be prepared to accept a priestly vocation if they see that it is Godís will for them, no matter how difficult it may be.
The last form of prayer is the examination of conscience which can be made at the end of the day. First, they thank God for all the graces he has given them during the day. Secondly, they ask God to reveal to them the faults of the day. Thirdly, they go over the day to see how they may not have done Godís will. Then they make an act of contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. In the morning when they get up, they resolve, with Godís grace, to be faithful to the resolutions they made the night before.
Becoming free to do Godís will
Since all prayer is leading them to do Godís will, the question arises of how they become free to do Godís will. Since the purpose of their freedom is to do Godís will, freedom does not mean being free to do whatever they want. That is license. Freedom means the ability to choose Christ in all the things they do for his greater honor and glory. The great enemies of their freedom are the world, the flesh and the devil. The world urges them to seek as much of this worldís goods as possible, no matter how they get them, since this will lead to worldly honors and eventually to pride, a complete independence of God. The way to become free of the world is to seek the highest degree of poverty of spirit where they put God first in everything they do and make him their greatest treasure.
The flesh brings up the question of feelings. Feelings are not failings but very poor guides. Feelings are good in themselves; they are neither morally right or wrong. It is what they do in following their feelings that is right or wrong. Secondly, their feelings work spontaneously. That means that they cannot avoid an angry feeling. So the feeling is not sinful but it can push them into doing something sinful like hurting the person who hurt them. And finally, the greatest difficulty with their feelings is that they say no limit; they want all they can get and if they do not control them, they can push them into serious sin.
To become free they must learn to control their feelings and not follow them when they are leading them away from God. Otherwise they will not be free to do Godís will. To know which feelings are the main ones in their lives, they must consider the Seven Capital sins. Although they are under all of them, one is the main root of their difficulties and if they control that one they will have an easy time controlling the others. So they must examine the Seven Capital sins and see which one is the main one in their lives and control it to allow them to become free to do Godís will.
The last enemy of
their freedom is the devil. He knows their feelings and how weak they
are and he will tempt them all day long to get them to give in to their
feelings and thus make a slave of them. They must be aware of this since
the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. So
with the help of the Holy Spirit they must discern how the devil is
dealing with them and how he has succeeded and then be determined to
fight against him so that they might retain their freedom.
Since the boys, by choosing to become priests, will have to sacrifice their lives, performing daily sacrifices is one of the best ways of preparing for it. They must be initiated into this practice from the very beginning. It is how they will become steeped in the Paschal Mystery of Christ, the death and the resurrection of Christ. They must learn from experience that dying to their selfishness will bring a greater union with Christ and a greater share in his consolations. This is how they will experience Christ. As St. Paul tells them in Romans 6:12-14, ďThat is why you must not let sin reign in your mortal bodies or command your obedience to bodily passions, why you must not let any part of your body turn into an unholy weapon fighting on the side of sin; you should, instead, offer yourselves to God and consider yourselves dead men brought back to life; you should make every part of your body into a weapon fighting on the side of God, and then sin will no longer dominate your life.Ē They must be told that these passions, these feelings, these appetites are continually seeking what is pleasurable spontaneously and avoiding what is painful spontaneously and that if they take everything that is pleasurable and avoid everything that is painful they will not find God but sin. They must learn to use those things that are pleasurable only if they are leading to God and they must embrace those things that are painful when they see they are leading to God. And they must make these choices no matter what all the boys around them are doing since many of them will not be seeking God but only instant pleasure. They must not let their passions or feelings make the choices for them but they must listen to the Holy Spirit directing and guiding them, and then with practice they will learn how to make the correct choices leading them to God.
There are plenty of times throughout the day when they will be free to choose pleasures leading to God and they will enjoy them. But at the same time there are plenty of times when they will be able to make sacrifices, choosing the harder thing, both at home for Mom and Dad and sisters and brothers and at school for all the boys and girls. The Holy Spirit will point out the occasions and inspire them peacefully to make the sacrifice. When they make these sacrifices, they will experience a greater union with God and spiritual peace and joy which will affect their mind and heart and even their body. This consolation will enable them to make greater sacrifices with ease and to accept the daily crosses which will occur in their lives.
Some may want to know how they can be sure it is the Holy Spirit inspiring them to do something. The answer is simple. Those choices that they are commanded by God and the Church to do, they must do. Those choices which they are forbidden to do by God and the Church they must not do. Outside of these choices there are many choices neither commanded nor forbidden. If the Holy Spirit is inspiring them to make these choices and they are not contrary to their state of life, then they will want to do them and they will experience peace and joy at making these choices. Then they will know that the Holy Spirit is inspiring them to make these choices.
Sacrifices, then, will be at the base of their growth in the spiritual life. But they must be warned that if they stop making these sacrifices every day and throughout the day, it will be very easy to fall into their self-indulgent habits again. As St. Paul tells them, in Galatians 5:24, ďYou cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires.Ē So if they want to belong to Christ Jesus, they must follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and train themselves to do Godís will each day. Then they will be at peace.
Confession and the Eucharist
The two sacraments to help them to grow spiritually week in and week out are Confession and the Eucharist. Confession will help them to keep and live purity of heart. Sinlessness will increase and strengthen their faith. It will help them to see the pattern of how they are tempted to reject God and follow their own selfishness. Then they will be able to form a plan of life on how to reject these temptations. Confession will increase their sorrow for sin and their purpose of amendment. And the sacramental grace will enable them to overcome these temptations successfully.
The Eucharist, which hopefully they will be receiving each day, will unite them to the death and resurrection of Christ. He will touch their minds and hearts and even their bodies so that they will be willing to die with Christ each day and experience the partial effects of the resurrection, spiritual peace and joy, right now. And these partial effects of the resurrection will strengthen them to continue to model their lives on the pattern of his death.
The Eucharist will also help them to detach themselves from the things of this world so that they can use them temperately and even give them up if that is necessary. Christ will dwell in them as in a temple and make of them a holy house. This will bring about a greater intimacy with Christ so that they will listen to his voice and follow his instructions which he will make known to them. And he will give them his power to be faithful to his inspirations. He will live in them and they will live in him and be eager to do his will all day.
Feeding the soul by spiritual reading
All around them they are being battered by secularism and consumerism. They are being told that material pleasures are the only pleasures that count. Their minds can become filled with a desire to possess all these things and lose their consciousness of God. To allay the effects of this continual bombardment, they have to live in his presence and think his thoughts. This is the reason for spiritual reading. The scriptures will be the first thing to read, then the Catechism of the Catholic Church, then the lives of the saints and other spiritual books. The director may have to build up a spiritual library or point out places where they can obtain these books. It will be worth the effort since they will be experiencing spiritual thoughts rather than unspiritual thoughts. Feeding their desire for spiritual thoughts will produce greater spiritual actions during the day.
The apostolate of saving souls
Listening to God directing them and feeding their souls with spiritual thoughts, they will eventually want to share their spiritual possessions with others. The director should try and find some apostolate for them, whether it be among fellow parishioners or those in any need in the neighborhood. But at the same time they must be told of the redemptive value of their prayers and sacrifices. These redemptive sacrifices can affect the souls of their classmates or their family or the whole parish and the world. So they will always have an apostolate all week long besides the one provided by the director. Then they will be aware that they are saving not only their own souls but the souls of others.
Joining with other spiritual clubs
The director should find out what other spiritual clubs exist in the neighboring parishes or throughout the diocese and arrange meetings, a conference or a day of recollection or a retreat so that the boys will see how God is working in many souls to bring his redemption to the world and then they will get a feeling of solidarity with others in the diocese. Then they will be able to support, not only parish plans, but also diocesan plans. This will also help them see some of the works they may be involved in as priests.
A vocation to the priesthood is a gift of God and only God can give it. But if we want boys to accept this gift, they must be prepared to hear this invitation when it is given and have the generosity to accept it. Spiritual clubs are one way of preparing them for this. If each parish had a spiritual club, no matter how small, wouldnít the future look brighter for vocations to the priesthood?
clubs for girls will have the same effect of preparing them for
vocations to the sisterhood.
Reverend James S. Foley, S.J., taught religion for many years at St. Peterís Prep in Jersey City, N.J. He is a retreat master for religious and has published two books on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.