My heartfelt thanks to the Serra Club International for inviting me to celebrate its 70th founding anniversary here in Thailand, a country that is so fascinating to us Westerners. The choice of this beautiful country reveals Serra’s missionary spirit, which promotes vocations in the Catholic Church with universal openness. I’ve come to celebrate with you and to report on a vocational initiative that has received great support from the Serra Club, the Symposium “For a fundamental theology of the priesthood,” held in Rome in 2022. I would therefore like to thank the organizers doubly, because this invitation allows two of those involved in this event, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and myself, to share with you some of the fruits of this theological and vocational encounter in the context of this great assembly. First of all, I would like to greet my fellow cardinals and bishops, the directors and members of the Serra Club, the priests, religious men and women, and all those who are dedicated to this great cause of vocations in this country and in Asia. “Let us pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his vineyard”. Prayer is the basis of any apostolate, but it is even more fundamental for vocations. I especially invoke Our Lady of Thailand so that her intercession may bring forth new disciples of Jesus for the proclamation of the Gospel in Asia.
I would like to talk to you about three things in the time allotted to me. Firstly, a little history of the Symposium; secondly, some reflections on the communion of vocations; thirdly, some ideas for vocational promotion in Asia.
Firstly, the Roman Symposium was a surprise from God. The idea was born after the Synod on the Amazon, where the lack of indigenous vocations in that region was discussed. Reading my book Friends of the Bridegroom prompted Father Capelle-Dumont, a leading French academic, to invite me to go further in the service of the priesthood. After bringing together an international research committee, we drew up this beautiful ecclesial project to promote vocations. When I submitted it to Pope Francis in June 2020, he approved immediately and agreed to intervene at the conclusion of the Symposium. Three weeks later, he called to tell me that he had changed his mind about speaking, and wanted to speak at the beginning rather than at the end. I then asked Cardinal Tagle, who was to speak at the beginning on Faith and Priesthood, to take the conclusion instead, which he gladly accepted. I thank him again today as he is here with us. Another surprise at the opening of the meeting was the fact that the Pope arrived half an hour earlier than planned, which disrupted our organization, but allowed us to make some good contacts. What’s more, I was expecting a brief 10 or 15 minute address, but the Pope spoke for over an hour, based on his personal experience of priestly spirituality. The 740 people who had registered and the thousands who listened online were delighted by this personal testimony from Pope Francis, which quickly went around the world. Interest in the Symposium and vocations has increased tenfold, and we thank the Holy Father once again.
These surprises from Pope Francis are the latest in a long line of surprises that characterize him. He is the first Jesuit to be elected Pope; he comes from the ends of the earth, as he said; and he chose the name of Francis to lead a reform of the Church. A reform in the manner of the poverello of Assisi, a saint of universal brotherhood, who followed Jesus very closely according to the Gospel, to the point of sharing his stigmata. Thousands of men and women, led by St. Clare of Assisi, have followed Jesus like St. Francis, risking everything for love according to the Gospel. Since the Middle Ages, the examples of Clare and Francis have periodically inspired the renewal of the Church.
Our times are no exception, and Pope Francis often repeats that we are living through the change of an era, not just an era of changes. The great expansion of communication technologies has changed the face of humanity in the direction of an economic globalization with many repercussions, not all of them positive. To the contrary: we note the globalization of indifference, and the tragedies of poverty, war and climate change that threaten the future of our planet.
Fortunately, the Second Vatican Council prepared the Church to respond to this epochal change with a far-reaching aggiornamento that ushered in a more positive relationship between the Church and the world. The holy Popes John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II interpreted the Council in a spirit of openness and dialogue that Pope Francis has rendered even more radical, for a missionary conversion of the Church involving all the baptized. The lay faithful in particular are discovering the importance of a personal commitment to their faith in order to respond to their vocation as missionary disciples (Evangelii gaudium 10). Along these lines, the Roman Symposium insisted on the priesthood of the baptized, which priests should serve by proclaiming the Word of God and giving the sacraments. It is a new way of promoting the priestly vocation to show that there are two ways of living it, one by ordained ministers and the other by all the baptized. You bear witness to this as the Serra Club, by exercising the filial priesthood of the baptized through the generous promotion of vocations, inspired by Blessed Junipero Serra, missionary of California, whose statue can be found in the United States Capitol in Washington. May your pioneering initiative in this area give rise to new developments on every continent. I encourage you to continue in the wake of the Roman Symposium by focusing your attention on the communion of vocations – of all vocations, which will also give a new harvest of specific vocations. Let me explain this approach to you, starting with its origins and its fruits.
Where does the communion of vocations come from?
I introduce the theme of the communion of vocations from the perspective of St. John Paul II, who devoted a great deal of energy to this great cause, particularly through his promotion of the family as the domestic Church. One day he called me from Canada to Rome to teach at his Institute for Marriage and the Family. At the time, I was rector of a major seminary in my country and I was involved in the training of priests. I was familiar with the Pope’s apostolate to families when he was Bishop of Krakow. He supported couples in their love with his famous “theology of the body,” which has lost none of its relevance today. His pastoral care of families was inspired by the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, a little Trinity on earth that reveals and reflects the Trinity in Heaven. I learned about the communion of vocations from the love lived in this little Trinity, which is the outline of the Church. Let’s not forget that Jesus unites the heavenly Trinity and the earthly “trinity” in a single family. As Son of the Father and son of Mary, he indissolubly binds the two families together. What a revolution for a human family to love with the divine love that Jesus gives them to share! A Child who is God, present in their midst. What a radical transformation for Mary and Joseph’s vocation to love! Their lives were turned upside down. Their fully human nuptial love opened up to a virginal gift of self in the image of their Child. Consecrated by the Spirit who comes from Him, they accepted the Father’s plan for their family, which was to serve as the foundation of the Church and of all the religious families that were to be born from the witness and model of the Holy Family.
This Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph remains not only the historical origin, but also the permanent origin of the Church, always accompanying us and inviting us to live like her in Trinitarian communion. For in her, the communion of the Divine Persons and human persons merged into a single divine-human family. In the visible figure of Joseph, we perceive through faith the invisible figure of the eternal Father. Between Mary and Jesus there is an indestructible communion sealed by the Holy Spirit from the first moment of the Incarnation until the Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ. This mysterious family is not a myth or an unattainable ideal; it is a reality as concrete as any of the poor families on the planet, a family forced to give birth in precarious conditions, and to emigrate to save the Child from Herod’s fury. What dramatic moments they experienced together: the discovery that she was pregnant without Joseph being involved, the crisis that followed, the threat of stoning, God’s intervention confirming Joseph in his role as Jesus’ adoptive father, the loss of the young Jesus in the Temple and the anguish of his parents, which prefigured his Mother’s anguish at the moment of the Passion. The Gospels are short on details, but we can imagine a thousand other very human situations in which they lived like any other family, struggling to protect the Child, to educate him and prepare him for his mission.
Today, vocations are lacking because families no longer have children, and we have forgotten the wonderful family of Nazareth; we have become accustomed to its example in the past as if there were nothing new to learn from it, whereas the Holy Family was for Jesus a first school of humanity, a kind of springboard that enabled him to gradually insert his Trinitarian identity, his Trinitarian relationships into the thirst for love of the whole human family. To this end, Jesus worked for a long time anonymously as a carpenter, Joseph’s trade, so as to be firmly anchored in earthly realities. Then he left the small family circle to create his own group of disciples who accepted his call and followed him. “He called them to be with him and to send them out to preach” (Mk 3:14). Called to be his friends and to love as he did, unconditionally, they took time to understand his mission. They really understood his revolution only when the Holy Spirit was given to them after the resurrection. Before that, they often argued about who was the greatest among them. When he announced things that were incomprehensible to them, some of them drifted away and stopped walking with him. Their names were lost. Peter remained with the twelve despite the crisis that followed Jesus’ proclamation of the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of his Body and Blood poured out for our salvation. Peter had replied on behalf of everyone: “To whom shall we go? Lord, you have the words of everlasting life!” After the resurrection, they understood that the Eucharistic communion they received in the liturgy was the communion of the Trinity, which they then had to offer to all through their brotherly love without conditions or exceptions, starting with the poorest. In this way, the Holy Family of Nazareth, taken up into in the death and resurrection of Christ, became the first missionary cell of the Holy Catholic Church, Jesus’ springboard for reaching out to all humanity with his Trinitarian communion, which grows ever wider and more fruitful in vocations to love.
Nowadays we are experiencing a crisis of vocations. It’s as if the fascination with scientific progress and new technologies has made us question our role in societies where we often live as if God didn’t exist. Young people are dreaming of new frontiers to conquer, and the cult of performance is added to the cult of money. Unfortunately, new forms of slavery are proliferating, caused by the artificial paradises of drugs and the Internet. In this regard, the Symposium offered us the testimony of Chiara Amirante, founder of the Nuovi Orizzonti (new horizons) movement for the recovery of street youth who have fallen into the addictions of alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling. She recounted how faith in the Gospel, the miracles of the Risen Christ and fraternal solidarity in community enable these young and not-so-young people to break free from their slavery and then work to free other young people in need of rehabilitation and social reintegration. Once they have undergone a profound conversion and experienced the communion of vocations to love, according to the truth of the Gospel, they no longer want to return to their former condition and they work to reconcile their fellow human beings. Many of these people then begin to grow by following a Spirit-therapy that keeps them in their new life, and some of them make public commitments as disciples of Joy and knights of Light. Listening to Chiara at the Symposium, the assembly was overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit emanating from this woman of God, and an impressive silence held us all spellbound and attentive. Such realities give us proof that the Risen Christ is at work in our time, bringing forth unexpected missionaries from the most compromised situations. The Gospel tells us that nothing is impossible for God and everything is possible for those who believe.
Another experience of vocational communion has edified me greatly in recent years. I came to know a contemplative community in Spain that is blessed with astonishing vocational growth, despite the fact that monasteries in Europe are regularly being closed. More than two hundred young women aged between 20 and 45 have joined this community over the last thirty years, drawn by the charism of its foundress, who offers a solid formation in prayerful union with Christ and in fraternal communion as a way of making Trinitarian communion tangible and attractive. These nuns do not leave their convent, but they regularly welcome groups who have discussions with them about faith and the meaning of life. These encounters change lives. Many conversions and confessions take place, people return to the Church after years away; vocations are born of these meetings; artists and professionals change their lives; young people enter the seminary; brilliant university students who have just graduated ask to be admitted; families are reconciled and become missionaries through example and apostolate. What is the secret of this fruitfulness? No publicity. It is a special grace of the Holy Trinity that makes its all-powerful Unity, its COMMUNIO, felt in the mutual love of these contemplatives. The people who come into contact with them are touched by the presence of God and the tender and merciful breath of the Holy Spirit that emanates from their words, gestures and songs. This new community is called Iesu-Communio, and many of the talks given by Mother Veronica, the foundress, can be found on Youtube.
For the communion of vocations in Asia
Dear friends, as you listen to these considerations from a Western bishop visiting you, you no doubt think that there are similar or better things in Asia, and I would like to listen to you at length to learn from you. I still believe, however, that an insistence on the communion of vocations can do good to all cultures and also to Asia in all its diversity. You have understood that the communion of vocations comes from the communion of the divine Persons whose eternal Life Jesus transmitted to us through his own human family and his ecclesial family. In this divine and human family of ours, we are all called. The website of our Center for Research and Anthropology of Vocations (CRAV) makes this very clear through the testimonies that accompany the Symposium Archive. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you that next year we are organizing a follow-up to the theological and pastoral research on vocations with a two-day Congress in the Vatican Synod Hall on the theme “Man-Woman, Image of God: For an anthropology of vocations”. In the meantime, I encourage you to get hold of and help to distribute the books of the proceedings of the February 2022 Symposium, the first volume of which is available here. They can be used to improve vocation formation at all levels, in universities, seminaries, novitiates, movements, lay associations, religious communities, everywhere.
I am convinced that the “communion of vocations” is a new formula for our times and for all cultures, including Asia. This because individualism, indifference and loneliness, which are common features of a global culture, are taking hold everywhere, even in Christian environments, through the influence of the media and fashions. The quest for individual performance in sport or in other areas cannot bring true happiness to our young people. Asia is less marked by individualism and still retains a religious sense that unites cultures when it is not misused to divide them. In this context, Christianity can bring an element of joy and even enthusiasm with the Good News of Trinitarian love incarnate in the Church and in our fraternal relationships. Blessed be God that there are still many female religious vocations among you, as well as priestly vocations. I am thinking in particular of the Philippines, Vietnam and Korea, and of the rebirth of the Church in Cambodia after the bloodshed of the Khmer Rouge revolution. These tragedies have left behind many martyrs, and the blood of martyrs is the seed of vocations, because the Spirit of the Risen Christ does not allow anything to be lost from the prayers and sacrifices that are made for the glory of his Name.
So let us pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his vineyard. Praying together is already a communion of vocations that attracts others. Moreover, the great challenge facing Christians today is not so much to get better organized, to be in the media and on social networks, to raise funds for the Church, although all that is important. Rather, our essential challenge is to be truly Christian, as we were in the beginning, to love one another according to the Spirit of the Gospel. It is genuine charity that makes the difference. Let’s remember Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity, who came from Asia and spread to every continent. They are evangelizing the West by caring for the poorest of the poor in the squares of our great cities and in our slums. Many of them have paid with their blood for their permanence in countries plagued by terrorism and war.
Before concluding, however, I’d like to mention a worrying phenomenon that marks certain secularized cultures, especially in the West. Noting that the abuses of a few clerics have affected and bruised Christian individuals and communities, some are reinterpreting the history of Christianity by fomenting shame for being Christians. We recognize that there are good reasons for repentance and conversion, but to be ashamed of being Christian is another betrayal of Jesus, a step backwards, a flight into the abyss. The Word of God is and will always remain our reference and our salvation. For this Word of God is Jesus himself, who came to earth to help humanity, to make it confident and fraternal, and to open the gates of heaven, the heaven of Trinitarian communion. The Church has been proclaiming this Gospel to all nations for two thousand years, and she urges all those she baptizes to be missionary disciples – not only disciples, that is, children of God in the manner of Jesus, but also missionaries, because Jesus’ friendship is a treasure for all, to be shared with all in a thousand ways, as Pope Francis invites us to do.
I spent ten years at his side as a close collaborator in the service of the bishops, and I believe that his reform of the Church has had a great impact because of his love of the poorest and his passion for communication. I’ve seen him invent new ways of announcing the good news every day: encyclicals, of course, like all the popes before him, but also books, interviews with journalists on the plane or for books, prefaces, surprise visits that make the news, etc… Pope Francis knows how to recognize the historical wrongs of the Church or its ministers, but he courageously defends her patrimony of truths and shows great zeal for the causes of the defense of life, the protection of our common home, and peace. He is an incomparable leader for universal brotherhood in the school of St. Francis of Assisi, and his daily appeals to put an end to the war against Ukraine bear witness to his sorrow as a father in the face of an absurd conflict between Christian nations. In him, then, we have an example that stimulates the responsibility of Christians and inspires all vocations, from family life to consecrated life, not forgetting all the baptized without exception, who are simply in the world with the beautiful mission of bearing witness to Christ and spreading his Spirit through their faith and charity.
Let’s recognize in passing that our Catholic tradition is predominantly clerical, at least in the West. Everything revolves around the ordained minister and there is a general lack of promotion and appreciation of charisms in Christian communities. The Council unblocked this situation, but the prevailing mentality is still slow to integrate the talents and gifts that the Holy Spirit pours out for the mission of the local Churches. The current synodal journey is an opportunity not to be missed, which should change the face of the Church for the better and make the most of the forces that are alive and available for mission. Without losing the primacy of the hierarchical principal in the Church, we ought to promote a new listening to the grassroots, more openness to dialogue and change, as well as an outstretched hand to those who feel excluded. In all this, however, we must be wary of ideologies that can take advantage of consultations to put across ideas that are alien to the faith. Finally, let us remember what Pope Francis calls the Marian principle, that is, the fact that the Virgin Mary is more important than Peter and all the ordained ministers; she embraces in her great maternal mantle the ordained ministers and all the baptized, reminding the whole Church that the two forms of participation in the one priesthood of Christ complement and support each other for the evangelization of the world. Her universal mediation envelops all the particular mediations that the Grace of God manifests in the Church, which is the “sacrament of salvation”, that is, the “sign and instrument” of communion for the salvation of humanity. All these elements need to be well articulated in the search for a synodal Church, which should be a new source of communion of vocations for the benefit of the mission.
More specific vocations are normally born of the witness of the Christian community that gathers for Sunday Mass. Every Eucharist is an encounter with the Risen Christ who calls us to renew our covenant with the Holy Trinity. In this respect, even flaws and limitations can serve as vocational calls. I remember when I was a child in my village: I went to Mass and the parish priest was a mediocre preacher; he always repeated the same thing and, at the age of ten, I realized this and thought that one ought to do better to live up to such a high calling. I think that such an experience played a role in awakening my own vocation. I also remember the vocational crisis at the Major Seminary where I studied immediately after the Council. The weakness of the formators and the confused training that was offered played a role in my decision to devote my life to priestly formation with the Priests of Saint Sulpice. Beautiful examples give rise to vocations, but as we see, the Holy Spirit can also make use of shortcomings and limitations to awaken vocations in the people of God. I’ve noticed this over twenty years of work as a formator in three different cultures and also as a bishop. My experience of 13 years in the Dicastery for Bishops enabled me to measure the dimensions of the contemporary vocations crisis and to make original proposals in the context of the current search for a synodal Church. The Roman Symposium I’m talking about is an important step in this process.
Let us remain joyful in hope despite our worries for the future, because the Holy Spirit remains the great protagonist of mission and renewal in the Church. Pope Francis has given the Church a missionary direction that is suited to our times, when everything must be developed in a dialogue that respects people and the differences between cultures. I am convinced that the religious culture of Asia is not opposed to Christianity and that dialogue is possible between human beings seeking God. Mutual respect between believers opens up new horizons for collaboration and solidarity between communities of different religious cultures. Such solidarity has become vital for the future of our common home, as the Encyclical Laudato Si reminds us. Among the baptized, there are already outstanding ecological vocations that are prophetic in preparing the Church and humanity for alarming scenarios that we must prevent by investing more than has been done to date. The situation in Bangladesh and the oceanic islands calls for an urgent response, in which Christians make it a priority to bear witness to the fact that divine Providence is counting on all of us responsibly to resolve the ecological problems caused by our own mistakes. Our prayer also supports these vocations, which require courage and perseverance in the face of indifference and uncontrolled economic interests.
Dear friends of the Serra Club in Thailand and around the world, it is wonderful to see East and West joining hands for the cause of vocations. This was the dream of St. John Paul II. I have made this long journey to encourage this alliance, which is a source of hope and a force for peace for humanity. I would have much to learn by staying longer among you, but these few days have enabled me to discover a world that is new to me, rich in human and cultural values that are open to new enrichment through the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the Church. Let us pray for the communion of all baptismal vocations, those to marriage and the family, to the priestly and religious life, and to the lay apostolate in all its forms. Above all, let us not forget the priesthood of the baptized in their workplace, their social life and their leisure activities, where they incarnate the Christian spirit in society. This Christian presence is a breath of hope that permeates all situations, that attracts and consoles because it gives priority to the poor, the sick and abandoned, migrants and refugees. This practice of charity also includes the struggle against the injustices that abound in a world divided between a handful of rich people who are getting richer and masses of poor people who are getting poorer. Pope Francis raises his voice against these scandalous inequalities that impel millions of migrants onto the roads, exposed to every kind of abuse, in search of a more dignified life. We are challenged by these facts, which urge us to fight against this evil and not to fail to do good. We will be judged on the last day by the love we give or fail to give to those in need. This final judgment will encompass our whole life and every one of our actions, even if in our worldly distractions we think we will fare well in it because we are good Christians. A good Christian who regularly attends the Holy Eucharist and finds in it the energy of Trinitarian communion cannot lose interest in the fate of humanity. We are involved in a marvelous and dramatic Covenant that gives us more and more to receive and more and more to distribute to those around us. The communion of vocations is nourished by this Source and offers humanity support and a center of gravity that attracts all human cultures and hopes. Like Pope Francis, to whom I leave the last word, let us offer our young people a perspective for the future that supports their dreams of a more habitable earth and a more fraternal humanity: “Dear young people, I will be happy to see you run faster than to see you slow and timid. Run, drawn by the beloved Face that we adore in the Holy Eucharist and that we recognize in the flesh of our suffering brother. May the Holy Spirit drive you forward. The Church needs your drive, your insights, your faith. We need you! And when you get to where we haven’t yet arrived, have the patience to wait for us.”