By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — For Father Jay Mello, assistant vocations director for the Fall River Diocese, National Vocations Awareness Week is an ideal opportunity to reach out to and connect with youth in the diocese who may be discerning a calling to religious life.
To that end, Father Mello and Vocations director Father Kevin Cook have been visiting some of the diocesan middle and high schools this past week in response to the U.S. bishops’ call to designate November 2-8 as “National Vocations Awareness Week.”
This observance, sponsored by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, is a special time for parishes to foster a culture of vocations for the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life.
Pope Francis, in his November 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, underlined the continued need to build a culture of vocations. “The fraternal life and fervor of the community can awaken in the young a desire to consecrate themselves completely to God and to preaching of the Gospel. This is particularly true if such a living community prays insistently for vocations and courageously proposes to its young people the path of special consecration,” Pope Francis wrote.
“A culture of vocations is one that provides the necessary support for others to hear and respond to God’s call in their lives,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Raleigh, N.C., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations. “With God’s grace, we help build that culture through fervent prayer, the witness of our lives and the encouragement we extend to those discerning a vocation to priesthood or consecrated life.”
“Because there are only two of us and many schools and each of us also have parishes that we are responsible for, it is impossible to visit each of the schools during this week,” Father Mello told The Anchor. “However, Bishop da Cunha has asked each of the chaplains of the high schools to make an effort to speak about vocations during the week.”
“Our presentation will be explaining what a vocation actually is and what it is not, differentiating it from a career or job,” he added. “While the goal is to draw awareness to religious vocations — priesthood and religious life — mention will also be made of the vocation of Marriage in contrast and complementarity to the religious vocations.”
Father Mello said he will also be showing a new video entitled “Heroic Priesthood” by Father Robert Barron, who also produced the excellent “Catholicism” series, which highlights how young men discern the “goods” (things that are important to them) in their lives within the context of the “greatest good” (serving God).
“Father Barron highlights the idea of the optimism, commitment and sacrifice which appeal to young men,” Father Mello said. “Then, using the example of St. John Paul II, he connects this to the call for a joyful assertion of the Catholic tradition which priests are called to do.”
Father Mello said Father Barron uses the idea of playing basketball as a team effort and compares that to the priesthood and how we are all called to work together to serve the greater good — not just think about ourselves and the things that are important to us.
“I will also talk about my own personal discernment as a young man and the joys of serving as a priest,” Father Mello added.
Observance of Vocation Awareness Week began in 1976 when the U.S. bishops designated the 28th Sunday of the year for the celebration. It was later moved to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord in January.
Last year, after extensive consultation, the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations moved the observance of National Vocation Awareness Week to November to engage Catholic schools and colleges more effectively in this effort. This is the first year it is being observed in November.
Among the diocesan schools that Fathers Mello and Cook were scheduled to visit this past week: Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth; St. Francis Xavier Prep and Pope John Paul II High School in Hyannis; St. Francis Xavier School in Acushnet; UMass Dartmouth; and St. Stanislaus School in Fall River.
These school visits are just one of the tools the Vocations Office is using to bring a greater awareness to potential calls to religious life.
“The Quo Vadis Days retreat for high school boys, the Duc in Altum retreat weekends for college-age guys (and older), the new vocation poster program which offers free discernment resources to men, as well as visits to the schools have all increased awareness for encouraging vocations to the priesthood in a positive way, as opposed to the negative way of communicating that if we don’t have priests, we will have to close more churches,” Father Mello said. “That may be true, but it doesn’t necessarily inspire young men to ask themselves the question: ‘Is Jesus Christ calling me to be a Catholic priest?’”
It would seem that the new approach has been bearing some fruit. There are currently seven seminarians studying for the priesthood for the Fall River Diocese: one, Deacon Jack Schrader, is at the Pontifical North American College in Rome and is slated to be ordained next year; two are currently enrolled at Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Providence, R.I.; while four others are at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton.
Father Mello also sees the recent changes in Church leadership — with the selection of Pope Francis and now the installation of Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V. — as having a positive impact on potential vocations.
“I think that any time we have new leaders, there is a newness and an energy that is certainly appealing to people,” Father Mello said. “The novelty serves to help increase the awareness of things as they make them a priority. Bishop da Cunha has made it very clear in interviews as well as his recent address to the priests of the diocese that promoting vocations is among his top priorities, and that is certainly reassuring and gives me great optimism.”
When asked how the faithful within the diocese can help foster vocations to the priesthood, Father Mello said they can first pray for those who might be discerning a vocation to religious life and then be supportive and encouraging to them throughout the process.
“One of the great obstacles to creating an atmosphere of vocations is when a young man is open to the idea of giving his life to the Lord as a priest but faces resistance or lack of support from his family, friends or even a priest,” Father Mello said. “Discerning the Lord’s call is a delicate matter. Vocations must be nurtured and protected, not just tested.
“So, I think the best way that the faithful can foster vocations is not only praying for more men to be open to the Lord’s call, but also that they might find support and encouragement from family and friends. I would hope that parents would ask themselves how they would respond if their child wanted to be a priest or religious Sister, and then pray for the grace to cooperate with God’s grace in the life of their child.”
National Vocations Awareness Week closes on November 8, and on that Saturday night the Diocesan Vocations Office is having a special Holy Hour of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Acushnet beginning at 7 p.m. Diocesan Vocation director Father Kevin Cook will preside, while Father Mello will preach as assistant vocation director.
“It is our hope that many from around the diocese will come together and pray to the Lord of the harvest to send many more laborers into the vineyard of the Diocese of Fall River,” Father Mello said.
For more information about National Vocations Awareness Week, visit www.fallrivervocations.org or visit www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/national-vocation-awareness-week.cfm.