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A U.S. National Campaign for Priestly Vocations

Interview With Father Edward Burns

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 16, 2005 (Zenit) - A new program designed to promote vocations to the priesthood has proven to be a particular help -- to priests themselves, says its executive director.

Father Edward Burns is the executive director for the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation at the U.S. bishops' conference. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1983.

He shared with us his perspective on a national vocational campaign to attract young men to the priesthood, called "Fishers of Men."

Q: What is the difference you see in most vocations today versus 10 or 15 years ago?

Father Burns: Over the past couple of years we have recognized that the age of men being ordained has increased. Last year the average age of those being ordained was approximately 36 years old. This has gradually increased over the last few years.

However, when looking at the caliber of men that are stepping forward to embrace a priestly vocation, I am struck by their sense of determination, high level of courage and appreciation for the Church's teaching. They are wholesome, holy, dedicated and committed men.

The men who are considering a vocation to priesthood are quite open about their faith and they live their faith with a lot of passion and fervor. It is quite evident that they are eager to be an important part of the Church's presence in the world.

Q: What exactly is meant by "renewing" the priestly vocation in order to bring about the encouragement of new vocations?

Father Burns: In the Fishers of Men project, a four-phase priestly vocation program for priests, we refer to the Chrism Mass, in particular, to the moment when priests proclaim their resolutions to serve "in the person of Christ."

The Priestly Life and Vocations Summit: Fishers of Men project affords priests within a diocese an opportunity to review with their brother priests the powerful moments of their priesthood.

This project was tested in six pilot dioceses and it was evident that it brought about a rejuvenation and renewal among the priests. This program is meant to bring about a regeneration of the priesthood.

It is our hope that young men will recognize a presbyterate of priests who are most fulfilled in their vocation, and that the priests themselves are eager to invite young men to consider a vocation to priesthood by saying: "Come, follow me."

Such an invitation is at the basis of this Fishers of Men project. Christ, the Word made flesh, looked at the apostles Simon and Andrew, along with James and John, and said, "Come, follow me, I will make you fishers of men."

As the priest stands in the person of Christ to say, "This is my body" and "This is my blood," and in the confessional and says, "I absolve you," I am convinced that within the ordination to priesthood comes a powerful gifts that priests, in the person of Christ, can say to young men, "Come, follow me." This is outlined in my article "Priests: Men of Word, Sacrament and Invitation" [see www.usccb.org/vocations/article.pdf].

Q: How did you discover the connection between priests wanting to share their vocation and new vocations to the priesthood? Why do some priests not share their priestly vocation with others?

Father Burns: I know that the joy of the priesthood is real, both in my life and in the lives of countless priests throughout this country, and joyful priests are most important in promoting priestly vocations.

We have seen recent reports that indicate that over 90% of our priests are extremely happy in being priests, even though these are challenging times.

The connection between priests sharing their vocation stories, and the correlation that this has with promoting more vocations to the priesthood is vital to the program.

Telling the wonderful stories of being a priest brings into view the fact that God is at work through the priest's life as being a man of word and sacrament. Not only do these stories have to be told, but they are essential for a priest to fulfill his responsibility in being a "fisher of men" and inviting a man.

Christ initiated this reality when he called men to leave everything behind to follow him -- and so we as priests today share in the apostolic succession, along with our bishops, as "fishers of men."

This is a great gift that we received at ordination, and even St. Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 1:6, "Fan into flame the gift you received when I laid hands on you." Christ calls us to care for this gift and share this gift -- most importantly by inviting other men to listen to the Lord's call and to discern his will.

Q: What will be the follow-up program for those young men invited by priests? How will they discover more about the priestly vocation?

Father Burns: The Fishers of Men program presents a structure for dioceses or communities of priests to bring forth their own conclusions as to what would be the best strategies within that local church for promoting priestly vocations.

With each diocese having its own challenges, cultural expressions and geographical makeup, the priests of the diocese would be in the best position to identify the most effective ways of promoting priestly vocations, recognizing that their participation in the invitation process is paramount, since they have been ordained as men of word, sacrament and invitation.

Follow-up for a young man who wants to pursue a priestly vocation would include obtaining a spiritual director, increasing his frequency at Mass, initiating contact with the vocation director, and entering into a deeper discernment process with the diocese or religious community. His deeper understanding of a priestly vocation would come as a he talks to seminarians and priests regarding their own vocations.

I am humbled by the fact that as a priest of 22 years I still discover more about my priestly vocation as I continue to serve the Church and the people of God. The priestly vocation is an exciting mystery in which to enter, and it is most fulfilling.

Q: How long will each of the phases of your program last? Do you plan for this program to become a long-term or permanent effort to increase vocations in the United States?

Father Burns: Phase 1 is an opportunity to get the diocese on board with the thoughts of conducting a Priestly Life and Vocations Summit.

This would include getting permission from the bishop, as well as some feedback from the presbyteral council. It is suggested that the vocation office and the ongoing formation office of the diocese collaborate in sponsoring this event.

Once this has been approved and a committee established in order to implement the process, then Phase 2 is the opportunity to interview priests using a series of questions that solicit the most positive responses that they are able to share regarding their priestly vocation and how they have, as priests, impacted the lives of the people of God entrusted to their care.

This phase may take some time, depending on the percentage of priests within the diocese that will be interviewed -- determined by the size of the presbyterate.

Phase 3 is the actual event itself. The Priestly Life and Vocations Summit, which may be a one-day event or a multi-day convocation, is the opportunity for the priests to reflect on the responsibility of being "fishers of men" and offer their responses to the questions that were posed to them in Phase 2.

The Priestly Life and Vocation Summit is the time to establish a strategy on how the priests can create a vocation culture within the diocese. Out of the convocation comes a plan, agreed upon by the priests that should be presented to the bishop.

Upon the approval of the bishop, Phase 4 is putting this plan into action. It includes the wisdom of the priests in the diocese, as well as utilizing the assistance of priests who indicated their willingness to serve in this capacity. Such volunteer priests would be of great benefit to the vocation office within the diocese.

Phase 4 would hopefully be an ongoing phase, which from time to time would need to be re-energized, so that the task of being fishers of men within the presbyterate becomes an ongoing part of their priestly ministry.

Much interest has been given to the Priestly Life and Vocations Summit: Fishers of Men project. We have received inquiries from Canada, Poland, Great Britain, as well as questions from a great number of news media outlets.

The response to this program has been very positive since its debut on September 26, 2005, during the gathering of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors.

Q: How can the laity help with this program, to encourage vocations?

Father Burns: Parents are vital in establishing a vocation culture in the home. It is here that the domestic Church has the opportunity to reinforce God's call and the willingness of all family members to embrace God's will.

Teachers, catechists, parishioners are all a part of identifying prospective candidates to the priesthood by witnessing the ability of young men to live a life worthy of a priestly vocation. While priests have a very important role in inviting men to consider the priesthood, it is with the help of the laity and from the laity that these young men will be the priests of tomorrow.

For more information regarding the Fishers of Men project, please contact the Secretariat for Vocations and Priestly Formation at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops [see www.usccb.org/vocations/fishersofmen.htm].

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Keywords

Vocations, Priests, Burns, Men, Priesthood

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