By Kenneth J. Souza
NORTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. — For the second time in as many months, a strategic planning meeting was held to guide representatives who are preparing to serve on their respective parish vocation committees. An initial meeting was held July 30 at St. Julie Billiart Parish in North Dartmouth and the follow-up convened at the same location on August 20.
According to Sister Paulina Hurtado, O.P., associate director of vocations and episcopal representative for religious for the diocese, these meetings were open to all parishes looking to either establish or revive a vocation committee and were a direct response to Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V.’s formation of a 10-member Diocesan Vocations Board earlier this year.
“We’re doing all we can to get the word out right now,” Sister Hurtado told The Anchor just prior to the recent meeting. “We had a better turnout at the first meeting, but people are here and getting the message.”
Although the idea of a parish vocation committee is nothing new — it was, in fact, one of the directives that came out of the Second Vatican Council — increased concern over the dwindling number of those discerning a vocation to religious life and the looming prospect of a high number of retiring priests on the horizon has rekindled the effort within the Fall River Diocese.
“That’s part of what we’re doing tonight: looking more practically at what the parish vocations team is, and how important the role of the parish is in any kind of vocation discernment,” said Father Craig A. Pregana, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Church in New Bedford, and one of several presenters that evening. “The parish has an integral role in it — it’s not something that’s just between the person and God — it really is done through the parish community.”
If there was a theme for the evening, it more than likely keyed in on the fact that Catholics can no longer sit idly by and wait for those to be called, they are obligated to help open the line of communication.
According to “Future Full of Hope, A National Strategy for Vocations to the Priesthood and Religious Life” that was issued by the USCCB Committee on Vocations in 1996: “As Catholics, in the past we have been spoiled by the number of men and women who have chosen to heed the call to religious life. This trend has diminished. Members of the Church today must recognize this reality and create an awareness of the importance of encouraging God’s people to serve as priests, Brothers and deacons — even as laity — in full-time Church ministry.”
“In a parish community, it’s the parish that is the instrument through which people hear that call,” Father Pregana said. “It’s what we do day-in and day-out as a community, and it’s through that community that people — young folks, old folks — hear the call to ministry. Using the image of the Harvest Master found in Matthew’s Gospel, we can almost take those three points as directives: preparing the soil, planting the seed, and then reaping the harvest. And that’s what you and I are called to do in our home parishes.”
Father Pregana said we can all “prepare the soil” through our prayer and worship efforts at the parish.
“I think what our parishes can do in terms of a vocation team include simple things like holding a Holy Hour,” he said. “Other ways include the Rosary — groups praying the Rosary can now center it around vocations. We don’t have to invent something new, we just have to channel it towards vocations, asking God — the Harvest Master — to send more laborers.”
Father Pregana said parishes can plan to celebrate a special Mass for vocations, or start a monthly prayer calendar to help people pray for priests and seminarians during the month.
“These are all simple ways of making prayer part of preparing the soil,” he said. “You can’t plant seeds on soil that isn’t prepared; it won’t take.”
Father Pregana said a parish’s Religious Education or Faith Formation program is the primary way to “sow the seed,” but we can all provide some encouragement.
“They tell us that age seven and grade seven are the prime times to talk about vocations,” Father Pregana said. “Age seven — First Communion — and then grade seven when they’re getting ready to go out into high school, about to experience a lot of change in their life. Age seven and grade seven are times when you and I can reach out and plant the seed. When that happens, they will participate in prayer and church. And because the soil has been prepared, it means that seed has a better chance of taking root.”
Something as simple as a vocations cross in the classroom can also have an impact, whereby a different student gets to take the cross home every week to pray for vocations. Even if the family doesn’t pray together for vocations, Father Pregana said it “brings the idea of vocation into the home.”
He also encouraged parishes to invite priests, seminarians, deacons and religious into their classrooms to “tell their story whenever they can” because “kids like to hear stories.”
When it comes time to “reap the harvest,” Father Pregana said that’s when parish leaders can play a pivotal role by inviting young people into ministry.
“You can do that right after First Communion — invite students to become altar servers,” he said. “Something so simple, but it brings them closer to that worship where the soil is being prepared. After they receive Confirmation, you can also invite them to become readers at Mass. What a great way to involve them! They can also become helpers with Religious Education: they can help the younger kids by teaching them songs and prayers. Getting them to do something is the beginning of service, and it’s also the beginning of a vocation.”
Echoing similar ideas and sentiments, Father Edward Correia, a retired priest of and former vocations director for the diocese, stressed how we are all called to promote vocations.
“In St. Paul’s letters, he presented an image to make us understand who we are: that of a body,” Father Correia said. “He explained that although every part of a body is unique and distinct and has a special function, they are all part of the same body. So throughout the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist, we are the Body of Christ.”
As such, Father Correia emphasized how we’re all essential and how “every single person is called to perform a specific function in the Body of Christ.”
“Look at the couple that lives the Sacrament of Marriage,” he said. “St. Paul said if you want to understand the love that Jesus has for His Body, the Church, look at the love that is being lived out between a husband and wife. Nothing happens accidentally — it’s all God’s plan. We have all been chosen to be the members of Christ’s Body — not by accident, but because we have a special role.”
Those who likewise answer a calling to religious life have “fallen in love with the Lord Jesus” and want to devote their lives to Him and His Church.
“I once spoke to a Jesuit and he told me: ‘I love Jesus because He is the reason why I get up in the morning every day. For the love of Jesus,’” Father Correia said.
Father Correia also noted how it’s interesting that Pope Francis dedicated this year as a Year to Consecrated Life, which also coincides with the upcoming Synod on the Family and is about to dovetail into the Year of Mercy.
“We can see why he did that, because those who live a consecrated life know what to say to those who are in family,” Father Correia said. “They know how to support those who are living the Sacrament of Marriage. It all comes together — priests, consecrated life and lay people will then enter the Year of Mercy.”
For Father Pregana, if you want the perfect example of Who to emulate when dealing with vocations, look no further than Jesus Himself.
“Jesus tells us to ‘Ask the Harvest Master to send more laborers,’ but then He calls the Twelve Apostles and names them, and He’s the One Who sends them out to do the work,” he said. “So it’s interesting — He’s been praying to (His Father), the Harvest Master, but He’s also doing the work Himself.
“And He’s doing it today in the Church: Christ is the One Who calls us.”