Have you ever wondered where all the priests and nuns are hiding? We have 34 parishes in our 6-county diocese. Of the 66 priests serving in those parishes, only 16 grew up in our area. Seven more, like myself, are Americans who came from another part of the country, and the remaining 43 priests are from other countries. In other words, only one in four priests in the Stockton Diocese is a local boy. Three out of four priests in our diocese are missionaries, so to speak, who have come from outside. To put it in another perspective, of the 300,000 Catholics in our diocese, only 16 men over the last 30 years have become priests for our local community. Isn’t God calling young men and women to consecrated life?
The answer is certainly yes. God is calling more than enough vocations from our local community. He would never leave his Church without priests. The priesthood is absolutely essential to our faith. Jesus called the four men in today’s Gospel: Simon and Andrew, James and John. He called them to the priesthood to provide the Eucharist for the People of God after he would have gone back to his Father. God still calls.
But for some reason, young men and women are not answering His call. Two weeks ago Fr. Dan from Russia preached all the Masses. He pointed out that Russia is extraordinarily vocations-poor, much worse than California. In 19 years they have been running the Cathedral in Vladivostok, not one Russian young man has been ordained. They have four seminarians, but all are from outside of Russia. Why? Fr. Dan said it was because the family in Russia lies in ruins. 92% of marriages end in divorce, and most Russian boys don’t know who their father is. So how can they become a spiritual father, if they have never learned fatherhood? We experience the same problem here, though not to that devastating degree. Strong families mean many and strong priests; weak families mean few and weak priests.
Where do nuns come from? Yes, I have to tell you, there is a nun-factory south of Fresno. They manufacture them with big solar collectors, and export to all countries, especially to Italy. No, of course, nuns and priests come from our families. Who will replace me, your beloved priest, when I die? Will you drive down to the priest factory and pick out another model? Of course not. The man who will replace me, and our beloved hospital chaplain Fr. Larry, and all our priests, is eating dinner at the family table this evening. You are tucking him into bed tonight. If you don’t see him at dinner tonight, and you don’t pray the rosary with him after tucking him into bed, and you don’t teach him the Bible today, then you probably won’t see him at this altar in 20 years.
Let me tell you my story. My mother and father, especially my mother, practiced the Catholic faith. They took us to Mass every Sunday and to confession every few weeks (with the promise of an ice-cream cone afterwards). They had six children, so giving one to God was not a big deal. Mom taught us to pray the rosary, and read the lives of the saints to us every night before turning off the light. We went on pilgrimages as a family, and we learned facts of life from our parents, not from some sex-ed curriculum at school. So when my call to the priesthood came, I heard it. I heard it loud and clear. I didn’t accept it right away, but I heard it. It was a viable proposition.
My call came in the following manner. I was living with three other guys in a student apartment at Penn State in 1982. We all had girlfriends, so when the hall phone rang we all came running (the days before cellphones). The phone rang one evening in April, and we all came running. Alex got the phone first, and announced it was “some man” for Joe. I took the phone, and the voice said: “Joe Illo? I’m Fr. Kelly from Our Lady of Victory. I’d like to talk to you about the priesthood, if you have a chance.” It was the voice, and the call, of God. I went to the church and spoke with Fr. Kelly about an hour. He told me about the priesthood, and said many folks thought I had that vocation. I told him I had a girlfriend, and wanted to be a teacher and have lots of kids. But I would think about it. Three years after that conversation, I entered the seminary, and I’ve never looked back.
Why did Fr. Kelly, and many folks at college, think I had a vocation to the priesthood? Because I loved the Mass. The Mass is the only reason a man becomes a priest. God calls priests through the Mass. Bring your sons and daughters to Mass. Teach them to love the Mass by loving it yourselves. Pray with your children at home, extend the graces of the Eucharist in your living rooms and dining rooms, and yes, even in your bedrooms. And you will see how God will raise up holy priests and nuns, right before your eyes.
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