Fr Denis Stanley
In church when I was growing up, just after the parish priest had said, ‘Go, the Mass is ended’, we all knew that our time in church had not ended, because then he would immediately say, ‘Ten Hail Marys for vocations’. Everyone would have to kneel down and pray the Hail Marys before we could leave. I always felt it was unfair of him to keep us in church, especially we children who couldn’t wait to escape and get outside!
Despite that unpromising start, in God’s own time and winding way, those prayers were answered in me as I later made the journey into the priesthood; even more so now that I am Rector of Corpus Christi College, the Provincial Seminary. I hope you detect an element of mystery here.
How all our lives unfold is a mystery—sometimes joyful, sometimes glorious and sometimes sorrowful. By mystery, of course, I do not mean simply uncertain, confusing or dark, but rather something to be wondered at, humbly grateful for and happy that God sets before us a vision to follow, discern and commit ourselves to. And even when the mystery of our lives does make us uncertain and confused and the way is dark, the call to offer our lives in some way for love of God and neighbour is not a senseless trial, a whim or a fancy, but a conviction that keeps us trusting that God does have a purpose for us.
So there is some drama in the mystery of God’s call to each of us. There is the struggle of choosing, of hesitation, of letting go, of risk, of being encouraged and of trusting. Then there is the peace of finding a path to follow and knowing that God has gifted me and wants me to use those gifts.
Just as mysterious is the vocation to the ordained ministry. Every priest and every seminarian has their own ‘vocation story’. Each of them would say that there is an element of mystery in their story and in all the drama that accompanies any encounter with God and his Church.
We are encouraged to pray for vocations. We are invited to pray that many will be inspired to be open to mystery of their vocation story, to trust the voice of the Lord breaking into their lives and to listen to any encouraging voice helping them to ponder the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood.
But is that all?
When we pray for vocations, what are we praying for? Is it just that God will fill up our seminaries? When I tell people that I am the rector of a seminary, the first question they ask me is, ‘How many students are there in the seminary?’ Of course there is a concern for numbers. This comes from a concern that their parish will always have a priest to proclaim the word, celebrate the sacraments and shepherd the life of the community. Parishioners are worried about this. As a diocesan priest I am concerned about this as well, but as a seminary rector I am also concerned about each individual student and how they are engaging with the mystery of their vocation story—the Lord’s call to offer themselves to serve God’s people.
Many years ago I heard in an Irish monastery their daily prayer for vocations, ‘That God may grant to our community vocations in number and in depth’. So when we pray our ‘ten Hail Marys’ for vocations, yes we are praying that many will be open to simply asking that first question of themselves, ‘O God, what will I do with my life?’ There may be times, by the way, when you can ask that question and plant the seed that might grow into taking God’s call seriously.
But to pray for vocations is also to pray that in responding to God’s call in their life, those who are guided and encouraged to make a decision to enter the seminary will also grow in depth.
What do I mean by depth? I mean three things: first, that each student pursues the mystery of their call by growing in compassion. Are they growing in a mature and confident understanding of themselves, with a ‘tough love’ for the Church and a loving commitment to the people they are called to serve? Secondly, are they developing gifts of competence? That is, can they lead others, work with them, be responsible and accountable? Can they balance their day so that they can get things done and not wear themselves or others out? Finally, are they growing as contemplatives? Are they at home with silence? Are they learning how to pray and are they committed to praying? Can they see the fruits of prayer at work in their lives, and are they anchored in God in calm and storm?
So when you pray for vocations, it’s not just about numbers— although our prayer must ask the Holy Spirit to lead everyone to be open to God’s call in their life, especially all those eligible for ordained ministry. But our prayer for vocations must be expanded and deepened, to ask the Lord of the harvest to work in depth in the lives of students for the priesthood. I invite you to pray that they will be brought to grapple with the mystery of what a call from God to serve his people means for themselves—to be compassionate, competent and contemplative.
So if we are to pray for vocations in number and in depth, we might need more than ten Hail Marys! Although, as in my own story, that might be a good place to start.
Mary, Seat of wisdom and help of Christians, pray with us and for us that God may grant to the Church vocations in number and in depth. The Very Rev. Denis Stanley is the Rector of Corpus Christi College, the Provincial Seminary