Today is Good Shepherd Sunday or Vocation Sunday. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict says “Without the priestly ministry, there will be no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist there will be no missions and without the missions, there will be no Church”.
We are in the middle of a financial crisis, we are beginning a health crisis, and we are certainly facing a spiritual crisis. Why? Because the priesthood and religious life vocations no longer seem to be an option for 99% of the young men and women of today. In my own personal view, if the quality of our spiritual life continues to decline as it is declining at the moment, in 30 or 40 years time, our churches will be as empty as the churches in Europe.
It is my view that we are already in stage 1 of our spiritual cancer illness so to speak. Externally, we appear to be fine, our Sunday Masses are still crowded with people of all ages and families. But, deep within, the illness is spreading it is getting more serious. We may not seem to feel the pain of this spiritual illness, but it is actually happening.
A priest told me that about 80 to 90% of the past 10 years of post confirmation young men and girls have left the Catholic Church to join another church or have left the Faith altogether. This means that if we do not face the problems of vocations as serious and urgent, then in 20 or 30 years time, we will enter into stage 2 of our spiritual cancer illness. Stage 2 is the critical condition when the majority of people will be outside the Church and outwardly fighting against the beliefs of the Faith.
As such, the shortage of vocations is only the tip of the iceberg of the reality of the spiritual crisis that we are facing.
A parishioner told me recently that she and her husband went on a packaged tour to Japan. In one of their visits a French lady in their tour group remarked that Shintoism is so peaceful, unlike the Christian faith that we used to believe where a bloodied man is hanging on a cross and telling us what to do and how to live our lives.
A Christian group in the United Kingdom some months ago advertised on buses, “There definitely is a God, so join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.” Six month later an atheist bus campaign responded with a bigger advertisement all over England, Scotland and Wales with advertisements on buses, ‘There’s probably no God! Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. One of the organisers said that their original target of fund-raising for this advertisement was £5,500. However, the overwhelming response raised £135,000. And so instead of advertising on 30 buses, they were able to advertise on 800 buses. An excess of 2,400% of the original target was raised.
Will our spiritual crisis lead us to stage 3 of our spiritual cancer illness? I hope and pray that we won’t. But, if we do nothing about our spiritual crisis, we cannot be sure that it will not happen.
Only 60 years ago, during Fr O’Neill’s time of Novitiate, the Irish Jesuits would have more than 100 Novices. Today we have 2 novices, one is a first year and one is a second. And after novitiate to ordination (about ten years) how many do we have in training for the priesthood? Two!
What about the Jesuits in our Malaysia and Singapore region? At the moment we have 2 novices, one more is joining us next year from Singapore. 15 Scholastics are studying for the priesthood after Novitiate till Ordination. So some say 18!; not so bad. Yet, I have to add that it is increasingly so difficult to get anyone suitable to accept the priesthood and religious life vocation.
Vocation promotion is like having to row across the ocean in a rowing boat. Pope Benedict tells us and urges all of us to take up the responsibility to pray constantly for more vocations. Thus, in our parish, starting from today, I urge all of us to pray for more vocations in all our Sunday and weekday Masses. This is not new; other parishes of our Archdiocese have been doing this for many years now. Actually, I would also like to urge all of us not only pray for more vocations, but also make sacrifices for the sake of more vocations. Yes, we have to do our part.
Our Holy Father also says that to respond to God’s call to the priesthood and religious life, we need to have the capacity for careful listening, prudent discernment. He adds that we need have the generosity and willingness to want to obey God’s Wll and His divine plans. We also need to find out seriously what the religious life and priesthood demands are, so that we can respond to God’s call, responsibly and with deep conviction.
All these advices of our Holy Father is very good and important. However, the question we need to ask ourselves today is “Are young people today willing to discern their vocation in life? Is priesthood and religious life really an option? As I said earlier, it seems to me, 99% of young people no longer consider it a real option.
Why? We need to face the truth of this tragic situation we are in. I believe the faith foundations of many Catholic Christian families are built on ‘sand’ and not on ‘firm ground’. By this I mean, families today do not seem to take the faith seriously. ‘Is this true?’ This is the question we each need to ask ourselves. The Catholic Christian faith is no longer integrated into a child’s upbringing. We have even children coming up for their First Confession and do not know how to say the “Hail Mary”. Is this the negligence of Catechists? Perhaps! But I think, all parents and families have the main responsibilities of being educators of the Catholic Faith and we cannot simply pass this responsibility to Catechists.
We must ask ourselves serious questions “How am I as a parent fulfilling my responsibility of teaching and imparting the Catholic faith to my children?
Do I teach my children to pray?
Do we pray together as a family?
Do I bring my children to Mass every Sunday?
Do I take special interest in my children’s faith education? Better still, Do I take the trouble and effort to become a Catechist and contribute to the faith formation of the children of our parish?
This list can go on, but I think it is not necessary because you yourself know what is happening in your homes. But, the fact remains that there is a very strong correlation between parents who take their faith and live it seriously, are also parents who consciously and actively teach their children the faith. These are parents who will teach their children how to pray and how to value the Sacraments of the Mass and Confession. However, those of us parents who do not live their faith seriously and actively will produce children who have a lukewarm faith.
And so the basic question each parent has to ask themself is, “How am I teaching and showing my children the Catholic Christian Faith?” More fundamentally “How am I living the Catholic Christian Faith as a parent? Am I a good model to my children?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we do not hand on the faith, the real faith, to our children, it is not surprising that we have no vocation. Amidst this gloomly picture of our faith and the dark prospects of having many vocations, we have one real hope. And the real hope is the Lord Himself - The Good Shepherd! He will rescue us.
In the seven verses of today’s Gospel that we heard proclaimed today, five times the Lord says ‘I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down my life for you. . . for my sheep . . . I know my sheep and my own know me. And even those sheep who have gone astray and are not of this fold, I will care for them.
Why does the lord say this? Because He loves us! He loves everyone. He knows each one of us personally and by name. He is longing for us to take our faith more seriously and pass on this faith to our children who are so vulnerably.
And so my brothers and sisters, even as we go astray, we must believe that the Lord the Good Shepherd, continues to love us. He loves us so much that He is willing to die for us and this is our true hope and our true joy. And this is precisely why we are still here today at this Mass. Not so much because we are good, but more so because God is good and God continues to be gracious to us; He continues to be patient and caring towards us, and continues to show us His infinite and unconditional love.
This is what keeps us going. But, we are called to be responsible Christians who will nurture our faith and to pass it on and even as the diagnosis of our spiritual faith shows that it is weak and ill, we have a real hope, the divine hope of the Good Shepherd who has not given up on us, and that is why we must hang on. We must not give up on God and if we are resolved to take our faith more seriously, we will surely recover and grow in strength spiritually. And Vocations to the priesthood and religious life may once again be revived and our seminaries will begin to fill up again. The responsibility is ours. Let us live this Easter hope and rejoice because Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, has not and will not give up on us.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.