(The following is adapted from an interview that Archbishop Gomez gave recently to the magazine, The Franciscan Way).
How would you describe the state of vocations today?
There has been a crisis for some time now in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life. Now, however, that’s true not just of the priesthood and consecrated life, but also of vocations to the married life. People used to get married when they were very young. Now it takes a long time for them to make a decision.
One of the reasons for all of these problems is the breakdown of the family. In the 1960s, the family entered a very challenging situation with divorce rates going up, more mobility, and less stability. It used to be that everyone sat down around the table and ate lunch and dinner together. There were family gatherings every weekend. That’s no longer the case.
I think this plays into young people not really understanding vocations or being willing to commit to one. Again, because many never had a stable family life, it is more difficult for young people to make decisions to commit to something that will last forever. Every vocation is born at home. The family is a domestic church. It is important for us to understand the role of family.
A couple of weeks ago in Rome, I had the opportunity to meet the Holy Father. At one point during the meeting, one of the priests with me asked the Holy Father to bless a zucchetto. The priest said, “Holy Father, could you bless this because my mother asked me to ask you.” The Holy Father’s eyes brightened and he replied, “One of the most important things in the life of a priest is his mother.”
I think for any vocation to be embraced, you have to have a good family environment. Again, this is true of marriage, too. How you think about married life and family life is so strongly influenced by what you experienced growing up in your parents’ home.
Are there any other reasons behind this crisis?
There is a lack of contact or relationship with consecrated people. A couple of generations ago, there were many priests and nuns that were visible to people. A vocation to the priesthood or consecrated life was an option most young Catholics at least thought about. We saw somebody living that vocation and could relate to it. Not anymore.
Along with that — and this is the most important thing — is the lack of depth in our understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church and how to develop a spiritual life. In the old days, at Catholic schools, we had Mass and Holy Communion daily. We prayed the Rosary, and we were taught how to start a spiritual life. But, since the 1960s, we have little by little lost our sense of prayer. We don’t understand the importance of spending time with God, or how to pray and relate to God. We are more interested in material things or having fun, and sitting down to pray doesn’t seem like fun to a lot of people these days. It doesn’t seem as attractive.
Why is it important that we say “Yes” when we hear God calling us to a particular vocation?
When we believe in God, we want to do God’s will. To listen to what God wants and answer him is essential for our own fulfillment. It is essential to our happiness on earth and in getting us to Heaven. The decision we make to answer God’s call, wherever that call may take us, will make all the difference in life.
What else can the family do to encourage vocations?
Pray together. Go to Mass together. Just talk about the important things in life. When something bad happens, say a prayer. Make an effort to go to religious events at the parish or make a pilgrimage. Usually the children don’t want to do that, and the parents worry about forcing their children to go. But they should. In the long term, it is something they will never forget, and it will make a difference.
Finally, this whole idea of knowing who we are is fundamental. Parents need to talk to children about that in a deep way, helping their children understand they are not just a Lakers fans or some other superficial thing, but a child of God. The best way a young person can learn that is to talk about it with their parents and see that reflected in the life of their parents.
What can pastors do to help the young adults in their parish discern their vocation?
The first thing pastors need to do is talk about vocations. They need to talk about it because people don’t know there is such a thing as a vocation, a particular call from God to the priesthood, consecrated life, or marriage. In the world, vocation is just a word. It doesn’t mean anything. We need to explain what it is.
The second thing the pastor must do is ask the young people what they think their vocation is. He must ask that question of every young person.
Just the fact of having the priest ask you what you are going to do with your life makes a difference. It gets you to start thinking about God’s will for your life and what Jesus is asking you to do. After that, it also helps for the priest to talk about the beauty of saying “Yes” to God and tell his own vocation story.
What else can be done to encourage a culture of vocations?
Strong Catholic schools are very important. They provide not only academic and spiritual formation, but also human formation, helping young people understand who they are as human persons.
Catholic universities are also absolutely important in this. During the college years, you discover what is out there in the world. It’s when you have to make decisions about what really matters and how you will live your life. Before that, in high school, you have the shelter of your family and a small community helping you make those decisions. But when you go to college, everything is wide open.
So what young people receive in college is going to mark their lives. That’s why it’s so important for universities to teach men and women the truth about God and the truth about who they are. Once they know that, they can make the right decisions.
What helped you pursue your vocation to the priesthood?
First, I went to Catholic schools, and they always asked the boys if we wanted to be priests. I also learned the basics of the Faith there and at home.
Then, my mother got sick with cancer. She was later cured, but while she was sick, I remember thinking that life is not easy. I also saw my father going to daily Mass at that time. That caught my attention and helped me see that faith is important.
Later, a cousin who was a hero of mine was killed in a car accident. Those things helped me to think deeply about what I was going to do with my life.
Were you ever afraid to answer that call?
Yes, of course. There is always fear, regardless of the vocation. But the fear will not go away until you make a decision.