By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff
FALL RIVER, Mass. — In 1963 Pope Paul VI designated the fourth Sunday of Easter as the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.”
Also known as Good Shepherd Sunday — so named because John’s Gospel reading of the day recounts Christ calling Himself “the Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11-18) — it is an opportunity for the Universal Church to pause and pray for increased vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
And for more than a half-century now, the Holy Father has issued an annual message for the day, addressing the ongoing need for vocations.
In keeping with that trend, faithful from across the Fall River Diocese have been invited to gather at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River on that Sunday, April 26 at 3 p.m., for a Holy Hour with Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., who will lead the prayer and also preach on the topic.
“We need to establish a positive culture of vocations in the diocese, to let people know how important it is for everyone to pray and encourage young people to consider the possibility that God may be calling them to service in the Church,” Bishop da Cunha recently told The Anchor. “We need to let our people know that promoting vocations is everybody’s business. They need to know that priests have a happy and fulfilled life, and that the Church needs faith-filled and generous men to respond to God’s call to service in the Church.”
According to Father Kevin Cook, director of the Vocations Office for the diocese, it’s appropriate that the Church pray for vocations on a day that also commemorates Jesus’ self-identification as the Good Shepherd, tending to His flock.
“Our Lord told us that the harvest is great and the laborers are few, so we must pray for the Master of the harvest to send us laborers for the harvest,” Father Cook said. “As a diocese we are called to pray with great humility and frequency for all vocations, but especially this day we are being called to pray for those called by Our Lord to the priesthood, that they will respond with great generosity.”
“Like the Good Shepherd Who cares for His flock, the priest is called to imitate Christ in a radical way, especially in his relationship with the people of God,” added Father Jay Mello, assistant Vocations Director and recruiter for the diocese. “This year, our new bishop will be presiding over and preaching at a Holy Hour for vocations. It is a great witness of how we are united with the entire Church throughout the world in praying to the Lord of the Harvest, the Good Shepherd Himself, praying that He might send us more young men to work in His vineyard as priests in our diocese.”
While a calling to the priesthood or religious life remains the focal point of the day, Bishop da Cunha also stressed how important all vocations are to the Church.
“Even though there is a great need to focus on vocations to the priesthood on that day, the Church invites us to also reflect and pray for us to honor the vocations of all Christians given at Baptism: the vocations of Marriage, priesthood, diaconate, consecrated life, and the single life,” the bishop said.
Father Cook thankfully noted how many dioceses have seen a noticeable increase in vocations to the priesthood in recent years, and Fall River is no exception.
“For a while, our diocese had been struggling with the amount of seminarians, but there are hopeful signs that we may be turning a corner,” Father Cook said. “At this time we have seven seminarians — one studying in Rome, four studying at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, and two studying at Our Lady of Providence in Providence, R.I.”
Father Cook attributes this uptick in diocesan vocations to several factors — not least of which is the continued support of his brother priests and, in particular, the guidance of Bishop da Cunha, who is member of the Society of Divine Vocations, a congregation whose central mission is “vocational discernment and religious formation.”
“I think the bishop brings different insights about vocation work and has inspired different priests to make vocation promotion more prevalent in their parishes,” Father Cook said. “Furthermore, I think I am seeing more brother priests inquire about vocations, as well as more priests are telling me about young men in their parishes with whom they have had conversations about possible priestly vocations.”
“I think that our new bishop belonging to a religious community that has vocations as a priority should be a clear indication that this is a priority for him,” agreed Father Mello. “Hopefully that will impact the number of men entering the seminary in future years as he carries out his ministry here in our diocese.”
Another great tool that has helped promote diocesan vocations in recent years has been the annual Quo Vadis Days experience, which Father Cook described as “a great combination of prayer, Sacraments, talks, fraternity, and sports.”
“During this week we strive to help young men grow in their faith, become more open to praying about whatever the Lord is calling to them to do, to grow in their understanding of the different vocations but, in particular, the priesthood, and to build up a fraternity with other young men from around the diocese who are trying to grow in their own faith,” Father Cook said. “The seminarians all help run the program and it gives the young men an opportunity to get to know some of the future priests of the diocese.”
Highlights such as the day-long group mountain hiking trip not only provide the young men with an opportunity to make new friends and get some exercise in the process, but also to share thoughts about their faith and potential calling.
“By sharing this week with others from the diocese, many realize they are not alone in taking their faith seriously and many develop some great friendships from this week,” Father Cook said. “I find most leave Quo Vadis Days with a greater openness to praying about their vocation.”
Open to young men ages 14 to 19 in the diocese, this year’s Quo Vadis Days is being held July 6-10 in Medway.
“Each year we have had an increased number of young men from around our diocese participating in this week-long retreat for high school-aged boys,” Father Mello said. “We are hoping to continue that trend this year with another record number of guys. It is a great week of fraternity, prayer, discussion and sports where priests and seminarians give talks on prayer, chastity, discernment and priesthood.”
“It really is an incredible week,” Father Cook said. “Applications can be picked up from the priests in any parish, or can be downloaded on the diocesan Vocations website.”
Parents who are interested in having their sons participate should contact either Father Cook at Holy Family Parish in East Taunton, Father Jay Mello at St. Michael’s or St. Joseph’s Parish in Fall River, or speak to their parish priest or high school chaplain for more information.
While diocesan programs and apostolates remain important resources to promote and foster vocations, Father Cook stressed that discernment often begins at home.
“When people sense their families are supportive of a possible vocation, they become more open to think and pray about it,” Father Cook said. “When the support is not there in the home, many times individuals are hesitant to pray and talk about a possible calling, because of the fear of rejection from loved ones.”
Father Cook said lay people can be of great help by simply talking to someone they think might have a possible calling.
“Studies have shown that a large percentage of those being ordained in recent years say they first considered a possible calling because someone asked them if they have thought about whether they were being called,” Father Cook said. “And we should be fostering a love for all vocations — whether we are being called to a particular vocation or not — and willing to talk about them with others, especially with youth.”
“Lastly, we should speak about our love for particular vocations,” he added. “When priests speak about their love for the priesthood, it helps foster an environment of promoting vocations.”
“I think the most important thing that the lay faithful can do to promote vocations is to speak to their children about being open to God’s will in their lives,” Father Mello said. “So often adults ask children what they want to be when they grow up, however, as Christians, we should refocus that question and encourage them to think about what God might want them to be when they grow up.”
Those who cannot attend the designated Holy Hour on April 26 are encouraged to pray for vocations in their own way.
“I would hope that at every parish we will have at least prayers for vocations offered at every Mass,” Bishop da Cunha said.
All are invited to attend the Holy Hour for vocations at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in Fall River on Sunday, April 26 beginning at 3 p.m.