Pastor offers his vision for pastoral priorities

By Father Matthew Simmons
“Behind and before every vocation to the priesthood or to the consecrated life there is always the strong and intense prayer of someone: a grandmother, a grandfather, a mother, a father, a community…. This is why Jesus said: ‘Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest,’ that is, God the Father, ‘to send out laborers into his harvest’” (Mt 9:38). Those are the words of Pope Francis from his 2014 message on Good Shepherd Sunday.
Through a series of listening sessions, Bishop Joseph Kopacz has instructed us to identify the gifts of the Diocese of Jackson and to plan for what kind of church we want. In my role as vocation director, I have seen that the people of Mississippi want a church with the Mass. In the vocation director role, I also witnessed God’s gift to the diocese of 12 men currently preparing for diocesan priesthood as well as many laypersons who actively support vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. The pastoral leadership plan developed from the listening sessions will include the focus of vocation and evangelization.
The priests participating in “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds” began to consider pastoral priorities to further the focus on evangelization and vocation. Promoting vocations to priesthood and religious life is challenging when young people have little contact with priests and nuns. I have often repeated that every priest needs to inspire at least two other men to be priests during his lifetime. Pope Benedict said that the presence of local vocations was a sign of the health of a church. I think that priests might use their inspiring others to vocation as an indicator of personal spiritual health as well. St. Vincent Seminary rector Msgr. David Toups, who was reared in Terrebonne parish as a family friend of Bishop emeritus Joseph Latino, said, “My old pastor used to say, ‘A parish does not come to maturity until it produces the fruit of a vocation.’ A parish could be 50 years old, but if it hasn’t produced a priest or a religious sister, it’s still in the infantile stages.” Most of you are neither clergy nor consecrated religious, yet you do have a growing opportunity to encourage vocations.
Bishop Kopacz hired the Catholic Leadership Institute (CLI) to plan the listening sessions. As CLI directs us to consider evangelization and vocations together, we remember that evangelization is primary. Parents, godparents, and all parishioners have the responsibility to evangelize. First, we are responsible to evangelize within our homes and families and parishes.  Pope Benedict XVI said that if we teach our youth how to pray we can trust that God will call them into a deeper relationship with Him and the church. Since I entered the church as an adult; I also remind you that RCIA can be a seedbed for vocations. As soon as I was received into the church, I realized that I wanted to attend Mass every day. Msgr. Michael Glynn saw my interest in the Mass and encouraged me to pursue priesthood.
The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious recently released a video available on iTunes entitled “For Love Alone.” A young nun says that, when she first considered religious life, “I wasn’t sure that God would be enough.” Parents who have a strong relationship with God in Christ assure their children by their values that one’s relationship with God is every Christian’s source of satisfaction and happiness. Celibate priests didn’t give up anything for priesthood for which we have not received great treasures – the greatest of which is praying the Mass.
The phrase “poor Father” never belongs on anyone’s lips; for the words are untrue and the sentiment undermines vocations. We also undermine vocations if we clamor for the church to change her requirement for a celibate male priesthood. “Good Leaders, Good Shepherds,” the continuing formation program CLI brought to the diocese in 2015, told us priests to focus on clarity and to minimize politics and confusion in our teaching. One will not inspire young men and women to make promises of obedience in the church through dissent against church tradition.
Pope Francis said, “On women priests – that cannot be done. Pope St. John Paul II after long discussions, long reflections, said so clearly.” Francis added that married priests is not an easy solution. Celibacy is not a hardship – it requires sacrifices no greater than does married life. The video “For Love Alone” presents the value of celibacy in connection to the value of spiritual motherhood and spiritual fatherhood in the church. I have witnessed that the people of Mississippi want spiritual mothers and fathers.
What else can we do in parishes to promote vocations? A pastoral council can identify men and women whom the parish would like to see serve God in these ways. Think about whom you would like to have as your pastor and tell the young man why you think he would make a good pastor in a serious private conversation. As Pope Francis said, prayer is behind every vocation. I am mindful of the example of the parishioners at St. Richard who have prayed the rosary for many years each weekday after morning Mass.
The time commitment they made impressed upon me before seminary that having priests was important to them. Father Scott Thomas and I are St. Richard parishioners impacted by those prayers. Every priest and seminarian with whom I have worked over the last several years emphasizes a reverent praying of the Mass and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I know that the Catholics of Mississippi want the Mass. Reflecting that desire for Mass in the way our parishes celebrate and pray the Mass ought to have a long-term impact on vocations.
On another Good Shepherd Sunday, Pope Francis prayed to God, “Inspire all of your disciples to mutual love and giving, for vocations blossom in the good soil of faithful people. Instill those in religious life, parish ministries, and families with the confidence and grace to invite others to embrace the bold and noble path of a life consecrated to you.”
(Father Matthew Simmons is the pastor of Meridian St. Patrick Parish. He was the director of vocations for the diocese.)
(Editor’s note: A full schedule of the Listening Sessions is found in the sidebar on this page).