In our time, there is a deeply felt urgency to “get more priests” for our diocese. Many dioceses throughout Australia and the Western world are feeling the same urgency. But, the question, “How can we get more priests?” only scratches the surface. The lack of priests is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise in our Church and serves as a call to renew our sense of urgency in the Church’s mission—especially to young people.
There is an epidemic among young people of our time: they are suffering from a lack of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. It is into this space that the Church must seek new ways to proclaim to every young person that God has created them for a purpose – and that his plan alone will bring them the happiness they seek.
“Vocation”, from the Latin vocare, meaning “to call”, begins with a universal call that the Church has received and passes on to all: the call to follow Jesus. In 2018, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation titled Gaudate et Exsultate—Rejoice and be glad: On the call to holiness in today’s world (GE). It can serve as a renewed call to every one of us who call ourselves Christian. As priests and parishioners, as teachers and as parents—the first teachers of faith—let us turn to these recent words of the pope in order to discover anew how to help all people, especially the young, to hear and respond to the call of Jesus in their lives.
Who wants to be “holy” anyway?
The very word “holiness” has lost much of its power in our time. Many would associate the very word with being somewhat weird, boring and perhaps even feeling superior to others. True holiness is none of these things! The call to “be holy”, as Pope Francis insists, is the essence of the call to follow Jesus—it is in fact the only way to the true happiness for which God has created us.
“The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence…Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when he created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self” (GE, 1,32).
The first step in our mission to young people (and all people who are yet to commit themselves to the call of Jesus in their lives) is to give them the good news that the voice of Jesus will always lead them to fullness of life; that they will find in him the very purpose for which they are created and a joy and fullness of life that the world cannot give. It is for us who have encountered this life-giving voice of Jesus to proclaim the message with urgency “in season and out of season” (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2)—by our words and by the example of joy which we radiate!
Who can be holy?
Once our young people have begun to believe that the holiness to which Jesus calls us is something attractive, the next challenge is the challenge of despair. Never before in history have young people been faced with more empty promises of happiness than in our time. From the “hook-up” culture leading young people to think casual sexual relationships are “normal” or even “necessary”, to internet pornography at their fingertips, to the narrative that getting “wasted” on drugs or excessive drinking is the way to have a good night, the voices of the world have never screamed louder than today.
“Hedonism and consumerism can prove our downfall, for when we are obsessed with our own pleasure, we end up being all too concerned about ourselves and our rights, and we feel a desperate need for free time to enjoy ourselves…Consumerism only bloats the heart. It can offer occasional and passing pleasures, but not joy” (GE 108,128).
Meanwhile, the quiet voice of Jesus continues to call each and every young person out of the emptiness of the promises of a hedonistic, consumeristic society, and into true fullness of life: “The Gospel continues to resound, offering us the promise of a different life, a healthier and happier life” (GE 108).
Many young people are tempted to think that “holiness” is out of their reach—that they have already strayed too far. This is why the sacrament of Reconciliation has never been more urgently needed than today. Our young people need more than ever before to be confident that no matter how difficult it may seem, and no matter how far or how often they have strayed, that Jesus never stops calling them, forgiving them, and giving them the help they need to grow in holiness:
“When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better.’ In the Church, holy yet made up of sinners, you will find everything you need to grow towards holiness. The Lord has bestowed on the Church the gifts of Scripture, the sacraments, holy places, living communities, the witness of the saints and a multifaceted beauty that proceeds from God’s love, ‘Like a bride bedecked with jewels’ (Isaiah 61:10)” (GE 15).
How do we become holy?
Once a person begins to believe that God’s call is attractive, and that he is still calling them in spite of their weaknesses and sins, then comes the final challenge: To hear God’s voice amidst all of the many other voices clamouring for our attention. Here, the pope and the Church speak of “discernment”. The process of discernment begins with the little decisions we make every day and culminates for young people in the discernment of the “way of life” to which they are called—marriage, single life, consecrated life or holy orders. The commitment to discernment of God’s will in one’s life is always a pathway of prayer and sacrifice. Indeed, making time for prayer is itself a sacrifice, especially in our time, when there are so many pleasurable distractions at the ready.
“The gift of discernment has become all the more necessary today, since contemporary life offers immense possibilities for action and distraction, and the world presents all of them as valid and good…. Without the wisdom of discernment, we can easily become prey to every passing trend…. It has to do with the meaning of my life before the Father who knows and loves me, with the real purpose of my life, which nobody knows better than he.…” (GE 167).
Moreover, as Pope Francis notes, discernment “requires no special abilities, nor is it only for the more intelligent or better educated. The Father readily reveals himself to the lowly” (GE 170). In other words, there are no special qualifications or formulas when it comes to “discernment” of God’s voice—except perhaps for one: prayer. If we do not make it a point to make at least a little time to be quiet with God each day, we will quickly start to lose our way. God is always speaking, but it is up to us to freely decide to stop and to listen.
“Trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face-to-face, where all is peaceful and the quiet voice of the Lord can be heard in the midst of silence” (GE 149).
In those moments of quiet, we begin to hear God’s quiet voice speaking to us of his love, of his closeness, of how much we are worth to him, and of the path he has planned for us to find the true peace and joy that the world cannot give—nor take away.
And yet, true discernment will not stop with ourselves. It will always lead us out of ourselves. And, here we discover the uniqueness of the Christian call, setting it apart from every other spirituality or philosophy which offers “inner-peace”, or “well-being” to the consumer: Christianity is not ultimately a consumer spirituality, or a self-help approach, for it is not ultimately about what we can “get”, but about what we can “give”, and it is precisely in making ourselves a gift to others that we receive the happiness for which we are created.
“This entails a readiness to make sacrifices, even to sacrificing everything. For happiness is a paradox. We experience it most when we accept the mysterious logic that is not of this world: ‘This is our logic’, says St Bonaventure, pointing to the Cross…God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us” (GE 174, 175).
The importance of youthful communities of faith
The response to God’s call in one’s life is deeply personal—and yet at the same time it is not something one does alone. “No one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community” (GE 6).
Younger people from adolescence onwards are especially influenced by their peers in their efforts to define themselves and their identities and discern the way to happiness.
This leads us in our context to a very practical consideration: How do we create communities of young people who can encourage each other along the path to holiness? Younger people from adolescence onwards are especially influenced by their peers in their efforts to define themselves and their identities, and discern the way to happiness. With declining numbers of young people attending church on a regular basis, the basic community of faith within an average parish can often make the relatively few young people present feel more isolated than ever. If they see only older generations regularly attending Mass, the message they often take away is: “This is not for you; it is no longer relevant for your generation.” As the numbers of youth attending Mass declines, this dynamic could become a self-fulfilling prophecy—unless we recognise that the parish community need not be the only faith community that exists.
This is where the prophetic genius of St John Paul II in instituting World Youth Day (WYD) has provided the Church with a blueprint for the youth of our time. This is not to say that WYD, in itself, is the practical solution—after all, so few young people can actually afford the time and money to attend. Rather, it is to say that we have discovered through this phenomenon of the modern Church that there is a unique power in the gathering of hundreds of thousands of young people in the joyful celebration of the one faith. The powerful and often surprising message that is shouted into the lives of the young people who attend is: “This is for you; this is as relevant as ever for your generation!”
The Australian bishops are likewise to be commended for the more recent establishment of the Australian Catholic Youth Festival (ACYF). Though significantly smaller than WYD, nevertheless the presence of thousands of young people united from around the nation for a faith event conveys the same, often surprising message to our young people that they are not alone, and that there are many among their own generation who are finding true joy in following Jesus.
Similarly, Catholic Youth Ministry Wollongong led by Seth Harsh and Joel Duval must be commended on their work for our youth. As well as creating faith spaces within our Catholic schools, an annual LIVE event in Wollongong brings together hundreds of young people from around the diocese who are often pleasantly surprised to discover the support of a community of like-minded young people, who are either committed to following the voice of Jesus, or at least open to hearing it.
Presently, our diocese is seeking to develop more ways in which young people are able to encounter each other in communities of faith, as well as getting to know adults joyfully living out their own vocations—including priests and religious prophetically witnessing to the joy that can be found in the countercultural call of Jesus in our time: From Holy Hours and meals together, to youth Masses followed by fellowship amongst youth, to Vinnies Youth and Young Adults seeking to enable young people to do good works, together, for those in need.
These relatively new initiatives from the Church worldwide to our own local Church, as well as many more youth gatherings and conferences that have been born in recent years, are creating spaces in which the young are able to hear the voice of Jesus in their lives and come to find an ever deeper joy in following him. As they come to know and love Jesus more and more, they come also to love the sacraments more and more, and finally they come to desire to enter more fully into the missionary life of the Church—seeking to share the joy of Christ’s love with all, in the particular ways in which he calls.
There is indeed a great urgency to promote vocations in our time and place, and this must begin with a renewed call to holiness for all our young people. As priests, parishioners, teachers and parents, let us work together to create a culture in which youth are repeatedly reminded by us and by each other that God does have a plan and a purpose for them, that God’s plan is trustworthy, and that God will continue to call them in spite of the greatest sins and mistakes they may make along the way.
Let us seek to accompany our youth in discernment of the particular way of self-sacrificing love by which Jesus calls them to follow him in his mission for our Church and for our world. Then, indeed we will be blessed with many faithful priests and deacons, religious sisters and brothers, faith-filled single people, and faithful married couples, who in turn will pass on to their children the call to holiness and fullness of life.
Fr Duane Fernandez is the administrator of St Therese Catholic Parish in West Wollongong and the vocations director for the Diocese of Wollongong.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 (Issue No. 67) edition of the Journey Magazine.